Philadelphia, PA – 2012 SEASON IN REVIEW: Last year was another highly successful one in the storied career of Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder, the Wildcats streaking out to a 10-0 start before suffering their first setback at Baylor. The team's only other loss came in the Orange Bowl against Oregon.
K-State is often thought of as a middle-of-the-pack squad in the Big 12, but has exceeded expectations in each of the past couple of years, finishing second in the conference in 2011 and winning the title last season.
Snyder has never been one to clamor for the spotlight, so if the prevailing thought is his team isn't quite on par with the Big 12's best, particularly in the preseason, then that's just fine with him.
"As I look at it this year right now where we stand, I'd probably echo the same thought," Snyder said at the Big 12's media event last month. "It's precarious trying to make those kinds of decisions as the season gets started. Our program is no different than any other in that the dynamics of the program change year in and year out regardless of how many you do or do not have returning. It's just a different environment, and I would suggest that it's just a difficult task."
OFFENSE: The Wildcats were effective running the football last season, churning out 194 ypg behind an offensive line that returns in tact this fall. Running back John Hubert is hoping to make the most of his final year in Manhattan after rushing for 947 yards and 15 touchdowns as a junior.
Replacing dual-threat quarterback Collin Klein (920 rushing yards, 23 TDs; 2,641 passing yards, 16 TDs) won't be easy, but Snyder has all the confidence in the world in sophomore Daniel Sams, despite his relative inexperience. Sams brings his own athletic talents to the backfield, and while his running skills aren't a concern, demonstrating consistency in the passing game is crucial.
Helping ease their new signal-caller into his expanded role will be standout receivers Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson, the duo combining for 81 grabs, 1,213 yards and eight scores a season ago.
As mentioned, the line should be a real strength for Snyder's squad, anchored by junior center B.J. Finney and massive offensive tackle Cornelius Lucas.
Snyder spoke about what it means to have a seasoned group of veterans in the trenches, even as he prepares to break in a new quarterback.
"If you have all five of your offensive line starters coming back, they're aware of that as well. Now, whether or not they take some things for granted because of that, that would put us in dire jeopardy, I believe. If they don't take anything for granted and they commit themselves to becoming better, then it's a very, very positive thing."
DEFENSE: The Wildcats were tops in the Big 12 last season in scoring defense (22.1 ppg), with their effort against the run (126.9 ypg) also ranking among the best in the conference (second). They weren't nearly as effective against the pass (248.5 ypg, 82nd nationally), but they proved to be an opportunistic bunch in leading the league and ranking third in the country in turnover margin (+19).
Unfortunately, the unit lost nine starters, including standouts Arthur Brown and Meshak Williams, leaving secondary battery mates Randall Evans and Ty Zimmerman as the lone holdovers. That duo combined for 126 tackles last season, and Zimmerman was one of three KSU defenders to log five interceptions en route to All-Big 12 and Third-Team All-America honors.
With so many holes to fill, Snyder reached into the junior college ranks for a handful of guys who he believes have the talent and drive to earn starting jobs. Time will tell if any have what it takes to become stars, but defensive end Devon Nash, defensive back Travis Green and linebacker Dakorey Johnson could see their stock rise as the season wears on.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K-State had the nation's top overall special teams unit in 2012, but both kickers (Jack Cantele and Ethan Hammes) are new. The one area the 'Cats should be fine is in the return game where Lockett and Thompson hold down the fort. Both returned kicks for touchdowns last season.
OUTLOOK: Even with so many question marks, the Wildcats should head into the conference opener at Texas (Sept. 21) undefeated. Navigating their way through the always tumultuous Big 12 waters won't be easy, particularly in those first two games as they head from Austin to Stillwater for clash with Oklahoma State.
Three straight home games against Baylor, West Virginia and Iowa State are winnable, but then again, this is the Big 12. Few things are that predictable.
Winning at Texas Tech on Nov. 9 should set the team up favorably as it welcomes TCU and Oklahoma to town before closing the regular season against bitter rival Kansas.
Winning a second straight conference crown isn't likely considering all that needs to go right for the 'Cats, but selling a Snyder-coached team short, even before the season starts, has proven futile in the past.