There are two ways to look at Kansas State’s last football season.
1. It was the beginning of a trend.
2. It was a fluke.
Based on where the Wildcats are landing in various preseason polls — The Sporting News picked them sixth, USA Today 21st and Phil Steele 37th — there are plenty of people in each camp.
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Some see 17 starters returning, including potential Heisman Trophy contender Collin Klein and all-conference linebacker Arthur Brown. With so much experience coming back, it’s only natural to expect improvement.
Others see a roster of overachievers that won most of its 2011 games by razor-thin margins. Eight of K-State’s 10 victories came by a touchdown or less. The Wildcats were also outgained by nearly 58 yards per game. With a harder schedule, can so much good fortune be duplicated?
K-State has expectations on its side. The last time it entered a season with high hopes came in 2004, a year removed from a Big 12 championship and a trip to the Fiesta Bowl, and it won four games.
Bill Snyder doesn’t want to go through that again.
But when K-State was considered the underdog in so many games last season, it rode a lack of respect all the way to the Cotton Bowl. Players rallied around the thought of proving doubters wrong. Though the Wildcats begin this season with a national ranking, they can continue to play with that same mindset because they expected more.
Of course, attitude will only take K-State so far.
The Wildcats are set at linebacker behind Brown and Tre Walker. They also look good at receiver, running back and tight end. And they couldn’t ask for a better leader than Klein. But if they truly want to build on everything they accomplished last season, they will need to improve in several key areas.
The offensive line needs to be rebuilt around center B.J. Finney. The defensive line needs Meshak Williams and Adam Davis to turn into every-down players next to whoever tries to fill the void left by former defensive tackle Ray Kibble. And the secondary needs big plays from someone other than Ty Zimmerman and Nigel Malone.
Unproven players such as senior safety Thomas Ferguson, freshmen blockers Boston Stiverson and Cody Whitehair, and senior defensive tackle Javonta Boyd will need to deliver.
Klein’s mobility and toughness will help a young offensive line early, but his arm could make the biggest difference. K-State likes to control clock by running the ball, and rushed for 185.5 yards per game behind Klein last season. But that methodical approach led to pressure-packed moments and injuries for Klein.
K-State’s passing attack ranked last in the Big 12, averaging 151.5 yards. If Klein can throw for 200 yards a game this season — with Chris Harper and Tyler Lockett leading the way at receiver, that’s a possibility — everyone’s job will be easier.
Asking K-State to win more than half its games by a single score is too much to ask. The Big 12 is stronger than it was a year ago with TCU and West Virginia now in the mix. Playing both on the road won’t be easy. Neither will traditional trips to Oklahoma, Iowa State and Baylor.
Even the nonconference schedule is difficult with Miami coming to Snyder Family Stadium on Sept. 8.
It’s not a stretch to think K-State could be a better team than a year ago and finish with fewer victories. It’s not crazy to think K-State could win a Big 12 championship, either.
The Wildcats are capable of more than they accomplished in 2011. But they will need to follow a different formula to get there.