A preseason ranking is rare for the Kansas State football team, so Sam Sizelove was understandably pleased to see the Wildcats secure a spot in so many top 25 projections this spring.
Sporting News tabbed them as the nation’s 17th best team coming out of spring practice, Sports Illustrated ranked them 19th and Athlon Sports slotted them 22nd in its annual college football preview magazine.
“Bill Snyder’s team is always dangerous in the Big 12,” Athlon wrote, “and could be a dark horse to contend for the conference title in 2017.”
That’s a far cry from last summer when K-State was picked to finish eighth in the Big 12’s preseason media poll, and the summer before that when it was picked to finish seventh in its own conference. The Wildcats haven’t sniffed a preseason ranking since 2014, when they opened at No. 20. And they have only opened the year ranked twice since 2004.
But things could be different when the first Associated Press poll comes out in a few months.
“It shows we have potential,” Sizelove, a junior linebacker at K-State, said last week at a Catbackers event in Goddard. “We have to live up to it.”
That’s a new mentality for Sizelove and his teammates. The Wildcats are used to being underdogs this time of year, embracing it and then slowly sneaking up on teams as the season goes along. Sizelove understands the difference. It will be hard to play the no-respect card if K-State receives enough, well, respect to begin the season with a number next to its name. Players will need to find other sources of motivation.
K-State coach Bill Snyder has already warned them about the dangers of believing outside hype.
“We just have to understand what the process is,” Snyder said last week, “and things like preseason rankings are not part of the process.”
The majority of K-State’s veteran players have experienced both ends of the spectrum.
“Lucky for me, we were preseason top 20 when I was a redshirt freshman,” Sizelove said. “We had great players like Jake Waters and Ryan Mueller on that team. Learning from leaders like that gives you a picture of how to handle it.”
K-State went 9-4 that year, climbing as high as ninth in the national polls before losing its regular-season finale to Baylor and the Alamo Bowl to UCLA. The Wildcats enter the upcoming season in a similar position, coming off a 9-4 record. But they won their final four games last year and defeated Texas A&M in the Texas Bowl.
With starting quarterback Jesse Ertz returning to lead an experienced roster, expectations were sure to rise.
Sizelove has seen limited playing time with the Wildcats thus far, but he was one of K-State’s top linebackers this spring and is expected to compete for a starting spot next season. That could thrust him into a leadership position of his own. If things play out that way, he already knows what advice he will offer to his younger teammates when it comes to handling expectations.
“That might have been the best team I have played with, but that was also the hardest-working team I have played with,” Sizelove said. “Those seniors never got in trouble, they always did their job. We have to do the same. As a team, we can’t get over confident and take it for granted.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett