Think of Kansas State football as stock for a moment.
It has been going up since Bill Snyder returned to the sideline in 2009.
The Wildcats won six games his first year back, then seven, then 10 and then 11 last season. They have gone from no postseason to a BCS bowl. They have gone from near the bottom of the Big 12 standings to conference champions. They have produced a Heisman Trophy finalist.
That ascent is a testament to the quality of Snyder’s work during his second stint as K-State’s coach, but even he will find it difficult to continue this season. K-State’s top two players – quarterback Collin Klein and linebacker Arthur Brown – are gone. The defense has to replace nine starters. The offense has to break in a new quarterback. At least some regression is expected.
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Still, it might not be time to abandon that K-State stock.
The Wildcats return all five starters on the offensive line, veteran running back John Hubert, skilled receivers Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson, as well as Ty Zimmerman, one of the nation’s top safeties. A winning season, an upper-tier bowl and a high finish in the Big 12 standings could all be within reach.
A friendly schedule that features eight home games and three trips the state will help the retooling process. K-State opens the year with nonconference games against lesser opponents – North Dakota State, Louisiana-Lafayette and Massachusetts – and ends it with five of seven games at home. Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma all come to Snyder Family Stadium. K-State’s road games are against Texas, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Kansas.
Eight, or more, victories seem possible.
The season will take an interesting turn near the end of September. That’s when we will find out what these Wildcats are truly made of. On Sept. 21, they travel to Texas in the conference opener for both teams. K-State has won five straight against Texas, but the Longhorns return the bulk of their starters and will be favored. Then, after a week off, K-State will head to Oklahoma State for a game against the preseason league favorite.
The Wildcats will almost certainly enter that two-game stretch at 3-0. How they leave it will determine if they are once again conference title contenders.
Quarterback play will be important. Replacing Klein won’t be easy, but Daniel Sams and Jake Waters are both capable successors. Whoever wins the job should succeed with an experienced offense around him.
Bigger questions exist on defense. K-State will miss Brown and his ability to control the middle against the run or the pass, but it will also miss Jarell Childs, Justin Tuggle and four capable defensive linemen who are not out of eligibility. It has to replace its entire front seven from last year.
Linebackers Tre Walker and Blake Slaughter have made big tackles before, but they were both nonfactors last season. Ryan Mueller and Travis Britz appear ready for a starting role up front, but they lack experience. They will all benefit from Zimmerman playing behind them, but he will need to adjust to three new defensive backs playing alongside him.
Will K-State’s offense have to win shootouts? Or will K-State’s defense surprise and provide balance?
Enough talent returns for another successful season, but too much uncertainty exists to expect another 11 wins.
This might finally be the year K-State takes a step back under Snyder.