Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!
Last season, Kansas State’s secondary was quite a bit glitchier than I expected, and the front seven didn’t make nearly as many disruptive plays as it had. The offense, shuffling between three quarterbacks and dealing with far more negative plays than usual, didn’t pick up much slack. The Wildcats were dependent on big plays on one side of the ball and gave up more than normal on the other. I expected top-35 play and basically a top-70 team instead.
It would have been a disappointing season in Manhattan had any of that mattered.
Instead, thanks to a late hot streak, the Wildcats won eight games and reached a bowl for the eighth straight year. They knocked off No. 12 Oklahoma State in Stillwater. They were one score away from beating two other ranked teams (Oklahoma, WVU). They whomped UCLA in the Cactus Bowl. They had the best special teams in the country.
- First 2 games (2-0): Avg. score: KSU 55, Opp 13 | Avg. yards per play: KSU 8.4, Opp 4.1 | Avg. percentile performance: 90% (94% offense, 77% defense) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-14.3 PPG
- Next 5 games (1-4): Avg. score: Opp 28, KSU 23 | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.0, KSU 5.5 | Avg. percentile performance: 40% (47% offense, 48% defense) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-2.7 PPG
- Last 6 games (5-1): Avg. score: KSU 33, Opp 27 | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.2, KSU 5.9 | Avg. percentile performance: 51% (55% offense, 46% defense) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-7.4 PPG
Just as it seemed like Snyder’s grip was loosening — something he could be forgiven for, considering he’s 78 and spent part of 2017 fending off freaking cancer — he went full-on Azarath Metrion Zinthos and summoned all his dark power again. And now, two of his three QBs return, along with his three leading running backs, two of four primary receivers, every starting offensive lineman, and a majority of his defensive two-deep.
It becomes more difficult each year to find new things to write about Snyder. There are no new words left. Last year, I wrote that he wasn’t that far from becoming a double hall-of-fame coach. In 2016, I wrote that he was college football’s Bob Dylan. In 2015, I tried to read tea leaves regarding his eventual retirement; how naive of me.
I’m done speculating about such foolish things as when he’s going to retire and how long he can keep pulling off magic acts.
Sure, KSU appears to be trying to figure out its post-Snyder plan, and he’s not really helping.
And sure, there were some smoke and mirrors with last year’s late charge — KSU’s post-game win expectancy (which looks at key performance stats from a given game and says “You could have expected to win this game X percent of the time”) was below 50 percent for two of its five late wins.
And sure, he’s been dealing with some voluntary attrition issues that have depleted this roster a bit more than expected.
But instead of figuring out when the end is coming or how limited portions of KSU’s roster are compared to most of its Big 12 brethren, I’ll just assume Snyder will figure out a way to win eight games with a roster of walk-ons when he’s 96.
It’s hard to draw much from KSU’s full-season offensive stats, considering the Wildcats had three very different QBs.
KSU quarterbacks in 2017
|Player||Ratio of rushes to pass att.*||Completion Pct.||Passer rating||Yards/Rush|
|Player||Ratio of rushes to pass att.*||Completion Pct.||Passer rating||Yards/Rush|
* Any reference to pass attempts includes sacks, while any reference to rushes omits them. Sacks should be counted as pass attempts, but usually aren’t in college football.
With Ertz or Thompson behind center, the intent was similar, but Ertz was a far more efficient runner (marginal efficiency: Ertz plus-3.8 percent, Thompson minus-7.7 percent), and Thompson, a redshirt freshman at the time, was a better thrower, albeit one who also took more sacks. He was a glitchier, younger Ertz, you could say.
Then there was junior-to-be Alex Delton, who ended up attempting more rushes (97) than passes (88) and torched UCLA for 160 rushing yards (and just 52 passing yards) in the bowl.
After a dynamite 2016, in which Ertz threw for 1,755 yards and rushed for 1,129, his career ended with a knee injury five games into his senior year. That helped to trigger a dud performance against TCU (six points, 216 total yards), but a great performance by Delton drove a near-upset of OU the next week. Then he got hurt, and Thompson posted a 284.9 passer rating in the upset of OSU. Then Delton powered the win over UCLA.
The Delton-Thompson battle continued through spring ball and didn’t produce a winner. So we can’t really know what personality this offense will take. That’s doubly true when you consider that KSU will have a new offensive coordinator for the first time since Snyder’s 2009 return. Longtime right-hand man Dana Dimel is now UTEP’s head coach, replaced by longtime receivers coach (and former KSU All-American receiver) Andre Coleman.
Coleman has the Snyder DNA, so I’m guessing not much changes, but we won’t know for sure until we see in the fall.
Junior Alex Barnes has rushed for 1,261 yards at 6.2 per carry through his first two years, and primary backups Dalvin Warmack and Justin Silmon both rushed for at least 5.2 per carry last year as well.
They’ll be running behind a line that returns every starter and has amassed 114 career starts. Granted, the quintet made it through 2017 injury-free, and that doesn’t usually happen two years in a row — if there are any injuries, KSU could dip into a pool of redshirt freshmen. Still, this is, for now, a seasoned unit.
KSU basically had two positions in the passing game:
- Possession man: Isaiah Zuber and Dominique Heath combined for 114 targets, 73 catches, and 704 yards last year, with decent efficiency numbers (a 64 percent catch rate) and no explosiveness whatsoever.
- Big-play guy. Byron Pringle, Dalton Schoen, and Isaiah Harris combined for 101 targets, 58 catches, and 1,332 yards — a lower catch rate, but with 23 yards per catch.
Heath and OSU killer Pringle (166 receiving yards, three touchdowns, and a kick return score against the Pokes) are gone, but you could make the case that the correct two are back.
Zuber was a steadying force for Pringle’s all-or-nothing tendencies, and Schoen, a former walk-on, managed to combine a 72 percent catch rate (23-for-32) with 20.4 yards per catch. He had five catches for 128 yards in the tight loss to Texas (the game in which Ertz went down) and five for 103 against Texas Tech before missing the last three games of the year with a broken collarbone.
We’ll see what Schoen does with more attention from defensive coordinators, but this is a solid duo. Harris (five catches, 138 yards) has potential as well. And we’ll see if Coleman attempts to work tight ends back in. They’ve caught a combined four passes in the last three seasons.
Snyder ended up having to make two coordinator hires this winter. Dimel left for West Texas, and defensive coordinator Tom Hayes retired after six years in charge.
Under Hayes, KSU pursued a bend-don’t-break identity of sorts, sacrificing efficiency — especially against the pass — in the name of big-play prevention. It could clearly win games, but it required masterful safety play and offered minimal margin for error.
This was Snyder’s preferred approach even before Hayes, so it’s hard to imagine much changing in 2018. But Blake Seiler, another former Snyder standout (a walk-on-turned-starter near the end of Snyder’s first KSU tenure), will put his spin on the approach.
It’s a good news, bad news situation on D.
- Good news: KSU probably won’t suffer as many injuries. The Wildcats managed to get only two regular linemen and one DB on the field for all 13 games. Continuity is especially important in the back, and KSU had none. Considering this defense’s emphasis on safety play, you could see how that might result in a few more big-play glitches.
- Bad news: most of the havoc guys are gone. Of the seven players who made the most havoc plays (tackles for loss, passes defensed, forced fumbles), only two return: safety Denzel Goolsby (the only DB to make it through all 13 games) and cornerback Duke Shelley (four TFLs, 13 PDs).
Linebacker Jayd Kirby (11.5 TFLs, four PDs, three FFs), tackle Will Geary (nine TFLs), and end Tanner Wood (five TFLs, four PDs) are all gone. Just about everybody else is back, but K-State defenses don’t produce many true disruptors, and now the front seven has to produce a new set of them.
End Reggie Walker is still around, at least. The junior looked like a star in the making, producing 11.5 TFLs and 6.5 sacks as a freshman, but he slid to just six and two, respectively, last fall. He is a potential difference maker — of 17.5 career TFLs, 16.5 have come in wins.
Last year’s injuries did create an opportunity for guys to get reps, though. As sophomores, end Kyle Ball made 3.5 TFLs, and tackle Trey Dishon made four. And in the back, eight returning DBs made at least six tackles last year, including corner AJ Parker, who flashed some play-making potential (1.5 TFLs, three pass breakups).
Seiler’s first defense could get a depth boost from transfers. Texas State tackle Jordan Mittie (5.5 TFLs last year in San Marcos), Virginia linebacker Eric Gallon II, and four JUCOs (tackle Tyquilo Moore, linebacker Rahsaan York, and DBs Darreyl Patterson and Kevion McGee) should assure that Seiler isn’t leaning too heavily on freshmen, even in case of another injury run.
Still, even in a bend-don’t-break system, you need at least a few play-makers. The pressure’s on Walker and others to produce.
With the banged-up offense less efficient than usual, KSU needed a strong special teams performance to avoid field position disadvantages. That happened. There were no weaknesses — the Wildcats ranked between second (kick return efficiency) and 36th (punt efficiency) in every special teams category.
Of course, there’s probably no need to talk more about last year because almost literally everyone’s gone. Place-kicker Nick McLellan made his only PAT attempt in 2017; he’s officially the veteran. KSU needs a new punter, new place-kicker, and new return men after the departures of Pringle and D.J. Reed.
Snyder never has a bad special teams unit (KSU and Kyle Whittingham’s Utah are the steadiest special teams schools), but you figure there will be a few more glitches.
2018 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|22-Sep||at West Virginia||43||-5.6||37%|
|24-Nov||at Iowa State||46||-5.2||38%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||61|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||34 / 85|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||5.6 (42)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||64 / 61|
|2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||10 / 8.5|
|2017 TO Luck/Game||+0.6|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||65% (77%, 54%)|
|2017 Second-order wins (difference)||6.1 (1.9)|
The negative spin: KSU has two new coordinators, an unsettled QB situation, and a defense that didn’t have enough play-makers last year and now must replace the ones it had. Because of last year’s early struggles, lost production, and forever-middling recruiting rankings, the Wildcats are only projected 61st in S&P+.
And while your response might be to point out that S&P+ projections are never going to favor a team that so regularly overachieves its recruiting rankings, here’s where I note the Wildcats were projected 35th last year and did not reach that mark.
Either way, they have a brutal schedule. Nine of 12 opponents are projected 50th or better, and thanks to Mississippi State, four are in the top 25. KSU will need to exceed its projections by quite a bit to match recent records.
The positive spin: Part of the reason they missed that mark was because of injuries. Teams underachieve when they lose their starting QB and can’t keep any defensive linemen or defensive backs on the field. And they did indeed improve late.
The most positive spin: KSU still has Snyder. He finds a way.