An old Big XII foe rises up and says “hello” at one of the most inopportune times in the season
Catch up on previous 2021 opponent previews!
Last week, when I previewed the Louisiana Tech matchup, I said that there were two philosophies of crafting a non-conference schedule: scheduling for interest and scheduling for wins.
I am 96.7% in the “schedule for wins” camp at the moment and that’s why I loved the Louisiana Tech game. The Bulldogs are an opponent that is desperate enough for cash that they are willing to kneel at the negotiating table and avoid Missouri from setting up a home-and-home, the team is bad enough that they shouldn’t threaten even a bad SEC team, and the coaching staff is brand new and overhauling a roster that wasn’t great to start. It should be a win and it was placed on the schedule to be just that.
If you ask my esteemed podcasting co-host BK, he is a fan of scheduling for interest and I get his argument. Even with ten seasons and two division championships to their name, Missouri is still the “new kid” in the SEC and lost a ton of noticeable and significant rivalries in the transition out of the XII. By scheduling for interest you can revisit old Big 8 foes (Nebraska, Colorado, kansas), continue an on-going basketball (and recruiting) rivalry on the gridiron (Illinois) and tap into the interest of some older fans who grew up with those rivalries regularly on the schedule.
The downside? Playing peer programs means you lose eventually. And when Missouri plays in a conference of teams that recruit at an elite level and field teams that are consistently 14-28 points better than an average team, you don’t want to make your life harder by heading into the conference schedule with one or two losses already on the docket.
I like wins. I like the Louisiana Tech game. I do not like this game.
Kansas State was widely considered the worst college football program in the country in 1988 when the Wildcats hired a relatively unknown 49-year old offensive coordinator from the University of Iowa named Bill Snyder. What happened afterwards is. without a doubt, the greatest college football coaching job ever accomplished in the history of the sport. Not only did Snyder make K-State a comparable P5 team with no natural resources or quality budget, but he consistently transformed a team of JUCOs and overlooked Midwestern high schoolers into conference champions and legitimate national title contenders over the next 30 years.
Here is a graphical representation of Kansas State’s SP+ performance since 2005:
Other than a few dips and several noticeable jumps in quality, K-State is consistently a team that is a touchdown better than an average team which is just the perfect encapsulation of the Snyder reign of terror in Manhattan; not enough to always win but just enough to keep it close and steal a few games. And when Snyder was able to have an upper-classman lead team, chock full of experienced JUCOs, low 3-stars, and a smattering of blue chips at the skill positions, the Wildcats would be an unstoppable force of purple pedestrian football.
Snyder is gone but his influence remains, not only with his name on the stadium in Manhattan but in the continued philosophy of the football team under former North Dakota State head coach Chris Klieman. Snyder excelled at crafting a team identity on good tactics, intelligent players, and zagging when a conference zigged – insisting on running the option in the late 90s/early aughts when power running was en vogue and then blending the option with a zone-blocking spread-fusion run attack in the mid aughts when the passing spread revolution was in its infancy. Klieman has brought North Dakota State’s hardnosed rushing attack, timely and explosive passing, and devastating defense to the Little Apple, adding a familiar penchant of being excellent talent identifiers and developers, and, thus, continuing Kansas State’s proud tradition of being the team that consistently beats you when they really shouldn’t come close.
Here’s what Kansas State did last year:
The 2021 version of the Kansas State fightin’ Wildcat football team was very simple to understand: outside of the baffling loss at Texas, K-State beat teams worse than them (8-1 against SP+ teams ranked higher than 21st) and lost to teams better than them (0-5 against teams ranked higher than 20th). And, when they lost, it was never by more than 13 points. Klieman has continued the proud tradition that Bill Snyder established many years ago in Manhattan: don’t be flashy, don’t be trendy, just counterpunch, play great defense, and keep it close.
Chris Klieman – 4th Year – 20-16 (13-14)
The 54-year old Klieman is about as Midwest as you can get: he played and graduated from Northern Iowa, got his coaching start as his alma matter, got his first position coach gig as Western Illinois, had stops at kansas and Missouri State, and then had one of the greatest 8-year runs possible as, first, the defensive coordinator and then head coach of one of the greatest college football dynasties of all time, the North Dakota State Bison. From the moment he moved to Fargo the Bison won seven national championships in eight years, winning four of those championships under the leadership of Klieman. But just like his former boss, Craig Bohl, got the itch to start from scratch elsewhere (Bohl went to Wyoming in 2014), so, too, did Klieman when he took the mantle at Kansas State. No one is making the argument that the Wildcats will be Playoff contenders with Klieman and his staff but if you’re looking for a guy who knows the region, knows how to maintain a winning culture, and can recruit overlooked talent, then Kansas State got the best candidate possible.
Collin Klein – Offensive Coordinator: If you were following Missouri in the early 2010s you’ll remember this guy. A tight end coming out of high school Klein started as a wide receiver before becoming a change-of-pace quarterback paired with then-starter Carson Coffman when Bill Snyder came back as head coach in ‘09. All he did after that was win 21 games in two years, including a conference title and Fiesta Bowl berth in 2012. Despite his college success his style of play didn’t translate to the professional ranks, getting a shot with two NFL teams and one CFL team but never making a roster. He inevitably ended back in Manahattan as Snyder’s director of recruiting and slowly worked his way quarterbacks coach. With the termination of coordinator Courtney Messingham before K-State’s bowl game against LSU, Klein was promoted to the OC chair and will get a full season in the role for ‘22.
Joe Klanderman – Defensive Coordinator: Another 100% Midwestern product, Klanderman was Klieman’s defensive backs coach at North Dakota State from 2014 until he followed his boss to Manhattan. He has been Kansas State’s DC since 2020 and has continued to field defenses that specialize in wiping out opposing rushing attacks. Like Klein, Klanderman has the title and responsibilities of coordinator but it seems to be apparent that, so far, both sides of the ball are run to Klieman’s specifics and approval.
Brian Anderson – Running Backs
Brian Lepak – Fullbacks/Tight Ends
Thad Ward – Wide Receivers
Conor Riley – Offensive Line
Buddy Wyatt – Defensive Ends
Mike Tuiasosopo – Defensive Tackles
Steve Stanard – Linebackers
Van Malone – Cornerbacks
Just like in the ‘90s and early 2000’s, Kansas State plays at a glacial place (129th in tempo), keeps up with down and distance (29th in success rate), lulls defenses to sleep with a competent ground game behind an excellent offensive line (24th in rushing) and then destroys you with a surprise explosive play through the air (31st in explosiveness). They finish drives with points (4.2 points per scoring opportunity), score a touchdown on 67% of their red zone trips, and benefit from one of the best turnover margins in the country. In short, the Kansas State offense does not take risks, does not make mistakes, and lets the other team beat themselves. Much like Kentucky in the SEC, K-State brings out the worst in your team and the offense epitomizes that approach. It ain’t flashy but damn if it isn’t effective.
The silver lining is that 59% of last year’s production returns, ranking 85th in the country. Most of that is in the passing game – specifically, their quarterback and top receivers – but a solid offensive line is seeing a bunch of turnover as well. The rushing attack will still be potent but Missouri will have to hope that the passing game is so scatter shot that they can key in on the run and shut them down.
Quarterback – Adrian Martinez – Graduate Student
From 2018-2021, Ft. Osage product Skylar Thompson was a solid college quarterback that could execute exactly what Klieman wanted: safe passes, few interceptions, and mobility. While he took a few too many sacks and never threw for more than 2,400 yards in a season, Thompson was savvy enough to keep the Wildcats on pace and finish with points.
He’s gone now. Enter: Adrian Martinez.
The Nebraska transfer is perhaps the perfect representation of the Scott Frost tenure in Lincoln: tons of hype and fanfare, not enough results.
Martinez is a higher ceiling/lower floor of Thompson: riskier throws, more yardage, way more interceptions, similar sack rate, more effective on the ground. If Klieman can iron out the clumsy reads and poor decision-making that Martinez demonstrated as a Cornhusker he could be a great piece to add to the K-State attack. However, if Martinez insists on his high-wire act it could absolutely create cracks in the machine that could force the Wildcats to play out of their comfort zone. It’ll be interesting to see whether the unstoppable force or immovable object wins out here.
Running Back – Deuce Vaughn – Junior
For those of you who still have nightmares of Darren Sproles running for 200+ per game against the Big XII you’re going to have some serious PTSD with Vaughn. Like Sproles, Vaughn is hardly tall enough to ride the ride, standing at a Lilliputian 5’6” and coming in at 199 pounds, 9 more pounds than Sproles did in his prime…but, oh, by the way, Vaughn carried the ball 235 times for 1,404 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2021. He was essentially a burlier Tyler Badie, averaging 6.2 yards running outside the tackles, 5.8 yards running inside, 5.2 yards when going against an 8-man box, and averaging one of the best yards per carry before contact in the nation at 3.2. Also like Badie: he was K-State’s most frequently targeted receiver, finishing with 66 targets, 49 catches, 468 yards, and 4 touchdowns. And now, Vaughn returns to try to replicate his ‘21 success with a full year’s tape in the vaults and only two of the tight five-man offensive line rotation returning.
Wide Receiver – Phillip Brooks – Senior
There’s nothing more “K-State” than the Wildcat’s top two offensive weapons being shorter than 5’8”. At 5’7” Phillip Brooks was the best receiver not named Deuce Vaughn, finishing with 64 targets, 43 catches, 543 yards and 2 touchdowns. The unranked athlete out of Lee’s Summit West was a menace running vertical “9” routes while averaging 12.6 yards per catch and 8.5 yards per target. K-State doesn’t throw it a ton but doesn’t need to; they pound you up front with a battering ram of running backs and quarterbacks and then, when the defense creeps up, chucks it over the top. It’s how North Dakota State has won their championships, it’s how Craig Bohl’s Wyoming squad took down Barry Odom’s boys in ‘19, and it’s what Klieman will do again in ‘22.
The Wildcat defense is very reminiscent of the Missouri defenses with Dave Steckel at the helm: generate a pass rush with the line, play off-ball coverage in the back, and let a college offense move the ball in the most difficult way possible – a few yards at a time.
K-State’s defense didn’t give up big plays and kept success rates low. Yes, they gave up a few too many points in the red zone and, yes, they did let offenses move the ball a little more than you would like. But this ultimate bend-don’t-break approach created a stifling rush defense that gave up zero big plays and a pass defense that would give up some short stuff but nothing over the top. Despite ranking 98th in the country at generating pressure, they were 32nd in the country in getting sacks while blitzing only 21% of the time (81st), essentially relying only on the front four to do any pass disruption.
The good news, as it were, is that the Wildcats return only 55% of last year’s defensive production, 107th in the country. There are some key pieces that are returning but, for the most part, the rotational and backup guys are all gone. While the scheme tends to counteract that sort of loss it’s still better to face some new, untested guys in Week 2 than a slew of seasoned vets.
Defensive Line – Felix Anudike-Uzomah – Junior
The 2-star edge rusher from Lee’s Summit burst onto the scene in his first full season as a starter, finishing with 52 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 10 run stuffs, 11 sacks on 29 pressures, and 5 (!) forced fumbles. That was good enough for 1st Team All-XII and All-Conference defensive lineman of the year. He’s back, as are primary tackles Eli Huggins and Jaylen Pickle and, while losing Timmy Horne isn’t great from a load management standpoint, most of the rotational pieces return as well. Klanderman’s defenses rely on the line to do a lot of work against the run and the pass so returning that many pieces from a solid unit should mean another good year of production.
Linebacker – Daniel Green – Senior
There were two linebackers that the Wildcat defensive staff trusted: Cody Fletcher and Daniel Green. Fletcher and his 70 tackles/8 TFLs/9 run stuffs is gone but Green – the more productive of the two – is back for another season. Green wasn’t sent a ton on a rush (9 total) but he logged 3 sacks out of it so his small-sample efficiency is intriguing. His real value, however, was as an attacking linebacker that lead the team in tackles (81), TFLs (17), and run stuffs (21). There are plenty of options to replace Fletcher but Green is the one that the Tigers are going to have to monitor on every play.
Defensive Back – Ekow Boye-Doe – Sophomore
Meet K-State’s shut down corner! He might not have filled the stat sheet – 19 tackles, 2 TFLs, 2 passes broken up – but only allowed a 54% completion rating on passes targeting his receiver and gave up only 231 yards over the 10 games he played in ‘21. He will be missing starting safety Russ Yeast and battery mates Jahron McPherson, Reggie Stubblefield, and Ross Elder. In fact, K-State loses the most production from their secondary which, again, is bad news for predictive defensive success (and good news for Missouri). There will be at least one guy the Tigers shouldn’t pick on but a secondary that was fairly generous in giving up yardage and is going through a reset of sorts is a good, potential weakness to pick on.
So what does it all mean?
Eli Drinkwitz’s second season in Columbia opened with a feisty Central Michigan squad followed up with a road trip to Kentucky, one of the swing-iest of swing games on last year’s schedule. The Tigers outlasted the Chippewas in Week 1 and faltered late against the Wildcats in Week 2, once again failing to reach a record of 2-0, something that BK explored last week. Faurot Field is a great atmosphere when people show up and, for most of the last seven season, the energy for the year has been sucked dry by a loss in the first two weeks that has given an easy out for fickle Missouri fans to not bother showing up.
Drinkwitz gets another shot at 2-0 this year, albeit with a similar second-week challenge. Both Missouri and K-State should handle their opening games with ease but the matchup in Week 2 will say a lot about both teams going forward. Missouri is still a super young team with a brand new starting quarterback; regardless of the talent on hand that’s a tough assignment for a team that will undoubtedly be inconsistent throughout the year.
Kansas State comes in with a brand new quarterback and fresh faces in the receiving corps and secondary, yes, but they are still super experienced and the play with a scheme on both sides of the ball that seems tailor-made to attack the glaring weaknesses of the 2021 Missouri Tigers. If the ‘22 version has either improved or nullified those weaknesses then it absolutely has a shot. If nothing has changed – or K-State finds a way to frustrate the hell out of a young team – this could be another quick trip to 1-1.
I like scheduling non-conference games for wins and this certainly isn’t that. But if Missouri can reclaim some of that Drinkwitz magic and steal a road win early in the season it could definitely mean positive vibes ahead. Let’s hope that’s the case here.