The Big 12 Conference is wide open this year, and the 22nd-ranked Kansas State Wildcats want to prove that they are just as capable as anyone to claim the conference crown, and that quest begins with Saturday's season opener against the Missouri State Bears.
Missouri State is hoping for a fresh start after a very disappointing 2011 campaign. In Terry Allen's sixth year as head coach, the Bears went just 2-9 overall and finished eighth out of nine teams in FCS's Missouri Valley Football Conference with a 2-6 league mark. There was a silver lining to the season however, as they won two of their final four games, including their finale at Youngstown State, 38-34.
Kansas State's season could not have started out any better in 2011, as the team opened with seven straight wins, which included a 36-35 decision against nationally-ranked Baylor on Oct. 1. After the hot start however, the Wildcats dropped back-to-back games against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State before winning three straight to end the regular season. Their 7-2 record in the Big 12 placed them just a game behind the champion Cowboys, and their 10 wins overall helped them secure a bid to the Cotton Bowl where they fell to Arkansas, 29-16.
Kansas State holds a 2-0 advantage in the all-time series with Missouri State. Both previous meetings came in the past five years, with the Wildcats winning the last bout on Sept. 11, 2010, 48-24.
The Missouri State offense sputtered in 2011 to the tune of 20.2 points and 319 yards per game, and with the departure of starting quarterback Trevor Wooden (17 TDs, 8 INTs, 567 rushing yards, 7 TDs), those numbers may continue to suffer.
Taking over under center will be Kierra Harris, who actually started the opener last season against Arkansas, putting together a solid line by completing 8- of-14 passes for 70 yards and a touchdown (his only TD pass of the year). Missouri transfer Ashton Glaser will also to see the field in this contest.
"The most important thing for us is to see how our quarterbacks do," Allen said. "We're going to play both our quarterbacks and see how they do."
The loss of top receiver Jermaine Saffold (45 rec, 913 yds, 9 TDs) won't help the quarterbacks much. Cadderrius Dotson, Julian Burton and Chris Douglas will line up as the starters, although they combined for just 44 catches last season.
Vernon Scott takes over as the lead tailback after rushing for 177 yards in his sophomore season. Speedy freshman Ryan Heaston will also see action.
If the Bears want to improve upon last year's two wins, an uptick in defensive production is a must, as the squad surrendered an unacceptable 37.1 points per game in 2011.
The use of a 3-4 defensive scheme means that talent at linebacker is imperative, and Missouri State returns plenty of experience at the position with Andrew Besiel (84 tackles), Rodney Kelly (46 tackles), Ryan Callender (47 tackles) and Nate Davis (44 tackles). The defensive line doesn't get much pressure on the quarterback, with returning starters Martin Montgomery and Eric Pearce combining for just 4.5 sacks a season ago.
Safeties Mike Crutcher (83 tackles, 1 INT) and Caleb Schaffitzel (70 tackles) lead the secondary. The unit will need to increase its takeaway quotient this fall, as it only picked off three balls a year ago.
Even though Kansas State lost six of its 11 starters on offense, the unit still figures to be highly effective thanks to quarterback Collin Klein. The senior is one of the top duel-threats in the country, joining the illustrious 2,000 yards passing/1,000 yards rushing club in 2011, while accounting for an astounding 40 total touchdowns (Big-12 single-season record 27 rushing TDs).
Head coach Bill Snyder is quick to praise Klein's progression during his career.
"He made a tremendous improvement during his time in the program," Snyder said. "And it's happened because of the quality of person that Collin is...he's truly committed to becoming better every single day of his life."
Though Klein grabbed most of the spotlight, tailback John Hubert was also a big part of the Wildcats' rushing attack in 2011 (970 yds, 3 TDs) and he hopes his junior year will be the year he can cracks the 1,000-yard mark.
Klein wasn't as consistent as he'd like to be in 2011 (.573 completion percentage), although the return of his top receiving target in Chris Harper (40 rec, 547 yds, 5 TDs) will definitely help. Tramaine Thompson and Tyler Locket are expected to raise their level of play with a larger role in the offense.
The Wildcats hope to improve their defense, which allowed 27.9 points per game last season. More specifically, they need to tighten up their pass defense, which ranked 103rd nationally (263.3 ypg). The return of CB Nigel Malone (7 INTs) and FS Ty Zimmerman to the starting lineup can only help.
DE Adam Davis (8 TFL, 4 sacks) and DT Vai Lutui (2.5 TFL) are the top returning linemen, although the rotation as a whole needs to make more plays in the backfield to take pressure off of the secondary.
First Team All-Big 12 linebacker Arthur Brown is perhaps the team's most dynamic playmaker, and he hopes to improve upon a tremendous junior year (101 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 INT).