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Bill Snyder is nearing a *2nd* Hall of Fame-worthy career at Kansas State

The wizard’s wizardry continues.

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NCAA Football: Kansas State at Texas Christian Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

Two hundred and fourteen coaches have been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. That’s not the highest bar; 32 had career winning percentages below .600, and 32 were head coaches for fewer than 15 years. Simply surviving as a head man for a sustained period, especially (but not exclusively) in a power conference, gives you a decent shot.

Six of 2014’s coached after induction: Chris Ault, Bobby Bowden, John Gagliardi, Joe Paterno, John Ralston, and Snyder. In a way, you could say Ault earned the honors twice. The former Nevada head coach was inducted in 2002 for his constant FCS success (six semifinal appearances, one finals appearance), but he returned to the sidelines and helped to reinvent football via the Pistol formation.

At what point does Snyder earn “should be inducted twice” status? He didn’t change the game with a tactical tweak, but he is entering nine years into his second tenure as Kansas State head coach, and while it has been different from his first tenure in many ways, it has been no less impressive.

The first time around, Snyder built a killing machine. His late-1990s Wildcats were genuinely terrifying, with hungry and talented assistant coaches, devastating defenses — 11th or better in scoring defense nine times between 1994 and 2003, first in 2002 — and an offense that always featured a dynamic dual threat, a heavy-load running back, and absurd play-action wideouts.

The Wildcats won at least nine games 10 times in an 11-year span and finished in the AP top 10 six times. They won the Fiesta Bowl in 1997 and the Big 12 in 2003, and the only reason they didn’t end up with more conference titles is that their peak coincided with Nebraska’s final run of dominance.

KSU trailed off in his final pre-first-retirement years, but his brick-by-brick building and sustained run of dominance were easily Hall-of-Fame worthy.

His second career began after Ron Prince went 17-20 as his successor. Snyder returned in 2009 and has won 66 games and another conference title (2012). KSU went 21-5 in 2011-12, then won nine games in both 2014 and 2016.

This eight-year span isn’t Hall-worthy in and of itself, but it might be getting close, considering KSU went 87-235-4 in its last 30 non-Snyder seasons. And it has been almost equally impressive in its unlikeliness. Gone are the young coaches — Bob Stoops, Bret Bielema, Brent Venables, Mark Mangino, Jim Leavitt, Mike Stoops — who left him to begin their own coaching trees. Gone are the physically dominant defenses, replaced by bend-don’t-break units that pounce on every mistake you make. And as of late, gone are the big-play receivers.

With an inefficient defense and almost no big-play threats, Kansas State went 9-4 and ranked 31st in S&P+ last season. The Wildcats found their offensive rhythm midseason and won six of their final seven games. After a 3-3 start, they transformed from the team I expected them to be — 6-6 with limited upside — to a team that in a lot of ways resembled the 10-win 2011 squad.

So does that mean 2017 will be another 2012? Probably not, but ... you can’t count it out, can you? Conference favorite Oklahoma just lost its three best skill position guys, Oklahoma State and TCU have a lot to prove defensively, West Virginia has a ton of production to replace, and Texas and Baylor are in transition. The Wildcats have a lot to replace in their front seven but boast a seasoned secondary and offensive line, a revived skill corps, and, in KSU fashion, a quarterback who’s among the best running backs in the conference.

It’s not going to happen again, right?

In last year’s preview, I noted that Snyder suddenly had quite a bit to prove after his squad limped through a setback in 2015. In response, he proved a lot. And then, in the offseason, he played a sturdy bend-don’t-break defense against throat cancer as well.

For virtually the first time, the 77-year old Snyder acknowledged feeling tired this offseason. It took cancer treatments to do it, and those treatments are over, but it was if nothing else a reminder that the end of his career is on the horizon. And for all we know, his reduced hours will result in glitches on the field.

But after last year — hell, after the last 28 years — he gets the benefit of the doubt. Snyder’s Kansas State will be Snyder’s Kansas State until proved otherwise.


2016 in review

2016 Kansas State statistical profile.

For two-thirds of last year, KSU was without much experience or talent. Blowout wins over FAU and Missouri State propped the record up, but the Wildcats had little to offer against fellow power conference teams. They outlasted Texas Tech and Texas at home and fended off a frantic comeback in Ames to survive Iowa State.

The Wildcats showed a spark in nearly beating Oklahoma State on November 5, however (they were up 9 with eight minutes left but fell, 43-37), and after a bye week, they hit the gas.

  • First 7 games vs. Power 5 (3-4): Avg. percentile performance: 41% (~top 75) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.8, KSU 5.1 (minus-1.7) | Avg. score: Opp 30, KSU 26
  • Last 4 games (4-0): Avg. percentile performance: 79% (~top 25) | Avg. yards per play: KSU 6.3, Opp 5.0 (plus-1.3) | Avg. score: KSU 35, Opp 19

The offense improved, and the defense improved a lot. KSU found a spark in freshman running back Alex Barnes, who rushed 30 times for 232 yards against Baylor and Kansas. He got hurt, and sophomore Justin Silmon rushed 32 times for 210 yards against TCU and Texas A&M. The jolt of energy for the run game opened up the pass — after catching 20 balls for 275 yards through nine games, receiver Byron Pringle caught 19 for 356 over the last four.

It was a domino effect: the increased offense meant opponents had to take more risks, which played into the hands of a team with a strong run defense and pass rush. Suddenly KSU was dominating the ground game on both sides, and the pass defense surged, allowing a 112.1 passer rating in those four games.

Everything fell into place, and now Silmon, Barnes, Pringle, and quarterback Jesse Ertz are all back. The biggest obstacle for replicating this late-season recipe comes with the turnover in the defensive front. But the offense could be tremendous.


Offense

Kansas State offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

A ruthless pursuit of efficiency. Forcing defenders to make solo tackles. Conversion in short yardage. Plodding tempo. These have been the building blocks of the Kansas State offense in recent years, and I would say the Wildcats checked those boxes appropriately in 2016:

  • 48 percent success rate (13th in FBS), 52 percent rushing success rate (fifth)
  • 86 percent solo tackle percentage (fourth)
  • 75 percent power success rate (21st)
  • 2.2 plays below expected in adjusted pace (81st)

Granted, there were issues, especially before November. The negative plays were too frequent — 69th in stuff rate, 96th in Adj. Sack Rate — and the big plays were nonexistent until late.

Kansas State offensive efficiency & explosiveness

Still, even while getting drastically outgained on a play-for-play basis, KSU was able to remain within shouting distance of better teams (Oklahoma aside) with this approach. And when the big plays showed up, the attack ignited.

Almost all of the reasons for ignition return.

The big plays made a huge different late, but it starts with efficiency. And in Ertz and Barnes, KSU might have the most efficient backfield in the conference. Not including sacks, Ertz rushed for 7 yards per carry, combining consistency (49 percent of his carries gained at least five yards) with high-end explosiveness.

NCAA Football: Kansas State at Baylor
Alex Barnes
Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Barnes gained five yards on 68 percent of his carries, and while that is unsustainably high with a larger workload, the 221-pound sophomore has all the makings of a supremely efficient back, especially considering Ertz’s run threat and the elite blocking he gets from his line (which returns 80 percent of last year’s starts and two all-conference guys in tackle Dalton Risner and center Reid Najvar) and his all-conference fullback, Winston Dimel.

(Dimel, by the way, had one of the greatest, most late-career-Jerome-Bettis stat lines you’ll ever see: 30 carries, 92 yards, 12 touchdowns.)

Barnes has workhorse potential, but juniors Silmon and Dalvin Warmack combined for 127 carries and 675 yards; neither was particularly efficient, but they have some pop.

KSU finished 25th in Rushing S&P+, and if November is any indication, that could creep toward the top 10.

That makes the receiving corps tantalizing, too. Pringle’s emergence was big, and now four-star Cal transfer Carlos Strickland II joins the mix. Others return — junior Dominique Heath, sophomores Isaiah Zuber and Isaiah Harris — but Pringle and Strickland are the potential headliners. This is a run-first attack, and Ertz probably isn’t the guy you want trying to make big passes downfield on third-and-long, but if KSU is anywhere near as efficient as it should be on the ground, this offense will have everything.

NCAA Football: Texas Bowl-Kansas State vs Texas A&M
Jesse Ertz
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Kansas State defensive radar

In a way, the rushing offense will drive the defense, too. Success with a grind-it-out attack makes opponents impatient, illustrated by the fact that opponents ran only 47 percent of the time on standard downs against KSU, the lowest rate in the country.

Sure, a lot of Big 12 offenses rely on the pass, but between opponent preferences, KSU strengths and weaknesses, and general impatience, the Wildcats faced more passing than almost anyone in the country. That became problematic for opponents when, late in the year, KSU learned how to defend the pass.

The Wildcats have only once ranked better than 42nd in Def. S&P+ since Snyder’s return — strangely enough, they were exactly 42nd in 2013, 2014, and 2016 — and haven’t had the play-makers to avoid going into extreme bend-don’t-break mode. That was mostly the case in 2016, too, but in linebacker Elijah Lee, ends Jordan Willis and Reggie Walker, and tackle Will Geary, they some dangerous options up front. This foursome combined for 42.5 tackles for loss, 20.5 sacks, and 11 passes defensed. But now the two most disruptive members (Willis and Lee) are gone.

NCAA Football: Texas Bowl-Kansas State vs Texas A&M
Reggie Walker
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Walker benefited from Willis’ presence, but as a sophomore he probably still has quite a bit of improvement to do. And in limited roles, backup ends Tanner Wood and Kyle Ball did combine for 7.5 TFLs and four sacks. There might still be A-grade pass rush potential.

Can some combination of Walker, Geary, and potential new breakout performers — Wood and Ball, JUCO lineman Xavier Davis, tackles Trey Dishon and Ray Price, JUCO linebacker Da’Quan Patton, linebacker Trent Tanking — produce enough disruption up front that opponents again lean heavily on the pass? Because if so, the secondary might be more prepared for a heavier load this time around.

Corners D.J. Reed and Duke Shelley combined for six interceptions and 20 breakups, though KSU’s late-season surge in pass defense did rather neatly coincide with nickel back Donnie Starks (who ran out of eligibility) taking over for Shelley in the starting lineup. That’s a bit of a concern, but the cornerbacks need only competence because I love the safeties. I have high expectations for both junior Kendall Adams and senior nickel Cre Moore, and if KSU gets anything from big JUCO safety Elijah Walker, the back should be stable.

You can see how this all works in concert: KSU’s efficient ground game opens up big-play pass potential, which forces opponents — already antsy and impatient because it takes forever to get the ball back from the Wildcats even without the big plays — to take more risks. A still-solid pass rush and awesome set of safeties then swarm.

If any piece falters, KSU becomes 2015-level mediocre pretty quickly. But it’s not a stretch to see that formula working really well.

Kansas State v TCU
D.J. Reed
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Special Teams

I have three years of Special Teams S&P+ data so far, and K-State has yet to rank worse than 26th in the team rankings. And the fact that the Wildcats indeed ranked 26th last year with almost all underclassmen is intriguing.

This is a scary unit. Pringle and D.J. Reed each averaged over 28 yards per kick return, Dominique Heath averaged 12.9 yards per punt return, and KSU ranked ninth in kick return success rate and 12th in punt return success rate. Meanwhile, Mitch Lochbihler took over kickoffs late in the year and booted two-thirds of them for touchbacks (he also averaged 46.6 yards in five punts). The biggest relative weakness is in place-kicking, where Matthew McCrane made only one of four field goals of 40-plus yards. But he also didn’t miss a single kick under 40.

Special teams are unpredictable from year to year, but this unit has as much top-10 potential as anybody’s.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Central Arkansas NR 24.6 92%
9-Sep Charlotte 127 29.9 96%
16-Sep at Vanderbilt 63 2.5 56%
30-Sep Baylor 28 0.9 52%
7-Oct at Texas 16 -9.8 29%
14-Oct TCU 21 -2.9 43%
21-Oct Oklahoma 5 -12.9 23%
28-Oct at Kansas 107 16.1 82%
4-Nov at Texas Tech 66 2.7 56%
11-Nov West Virginia 69 9.4 71%
18-Nov at Oklahoma State 22 -7.8 33%
25-Nov Iowa State 57 6.5 65%
Projected S&P+ Rk 35
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 36 / 52
Projected wins 7.0
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 9.1 (31)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 68 / 60
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 13 / 6.2
2016 TO Luck/Game +2.6
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 70% (79%, 61%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 7.2 (1.8)

This could all go wrong. Snyder’s 30-hours-a-day obsessiveness has driven this ship for a long time, and the fact that he stepped back in the spring while under cancer treatment could be a sign that his grip on the program is loosening.

For all we know, the ship can steer itself at this point — between his longtime assistants and a strong set of upperclassman leaders, maybe all of his lessons have been internalized — but it’s a concern until proved otherwise.

It’s just about the only concern, though. This was a legitimate top-20 team at the end of 2016, and while there is some turnover in the front seven, the secondary should be stable, and the offense and special teams could pick up a lot of slack. A lot of slack.

There’s a lot to like. Naturally, since S&P+ uses recruiting rankings as part of the formula, its projections are a bit on the conservative side, but the Wildcats are still projected a healthy 35th and favored in eight games. If they play at a top-20 level, that could flip another game in their favor.

KSU won’t be the Big 12 favorite, but let’s not pretend the Wildcats don’t have a chance to make a run.

Team preview stats

All power conference preview data to date.