Bill Snyder is coming back, Kansas State is coming off a bowl victory and college football experts are picking the Wildcats to be ranked next season.
It should. K-State has been here before, one year ago to be precise. The 2017 Wildcats followed the same path as the 2016 Wildcats, and they enter the offseason in exactly the same way. A quick recap: They got off to a disappointing 3-4 start, but rallied for an 8-5 finish. The result -- a fourth-place Big 12 finish and a 35-17 victory over UCLA in the Cactus Bowl -- sends them into 2018 with momentum.
“We have very high expectations,” K-State receiver Dominique Heath said. “If we could go back to the beginning of the season, we would still have the same expectations. We know the kind of team we were and the kind of team we should have been all season. I feel like we finished the season on a great note to get it started next year.”
How can K-State enhance its current trajectory?
That’s the question Snyder will ponder throughout winter workouts, spring practices and summer camp.
K-State ended 2016 on an equally impressive streak, finishing 9-4 with a win over Texas A&M in the Texas Bowl, and experts projected it to contend for a Big 12 championship. Instead, the Wildcats were out of the conference race before it began. A season that started with fans hoping for 10 wins barely ended with a postseason invite.
One can hope a Cactus Bowl victory will lead to bigger things next year. But that is far from automatic.
“It’s pretty obvious we’d have to change course, because we didn’t take advantage of the strong finish that we had last year,” Snyder said after the Cactus Bowl. “As you know, we were not a real good football team earlier in the season. So whatever that approach was, we’re going to have to change it.
“The main thing is every year is different, and the dynamics are different regardless of how many young guys you have back. It’s still about the same process ... It’s just a matter of doing it.”
How K-State performed this season is in the eye of the beholder. With starting quarterback Jesse Ertz going down with a leg injury after five games and backup Alex Delton missing portions of five games with concussions, one could argue the Wildcats did well to rally behind redshirt freshman Skylar Thompson and win five of their final six games.
But they also lost to Vanderbilt at full strength, and the Commodores weren’t competitive in the SEC. Ertz also played most of the way during an overtime loss at Texas. Then came home defeats against TCU and Oklahoma. One could argue K-State’s 3-4 start had little to do with bad luck or injuries.
“I think we got ahead of ourselves a little bit at the outset of the season, maybe thought we were a little better than we were at the time,” Snyder said. “And consequently, it didn’t help us. So we’ll just have to go back to basics again and understand how to get to where we want to be and what it takes to get it and how to do it.”
The Wildcats seemed to embrace that style late in the season, rallying from fourth-quarter deficits to beat Texas Tech and Iowa State and then coming from 10 down at halftime to thump UCLA.
They were the Cardiac Cats and Thompson was Captain Comeback.
“It was all about belief,” K-State running back Alex Barnes said. “We have a fourth-quarter drill everyday in practice. We condition after that. It’s not a matter of being in shape or anything like that, it’s about having that belief that no matter what we are still going to win.”
Next season, K-State would rather play from ahead. Can they improve enough to do so?
The Wildcats have enough talent returning to take a step forward on offense. They will be without top receiver Byron Pringle and Ertz. They might also lose fullback Winston Dimel. But everyone else returns, including star running back Alex Barnes and standout right tackle Dalton Risner.
Their biggest question mark will be at quarterback, where Delton and Thompson appear destined for an intriguing position battle. Delton (637 yards and three touchdowns passing, 500 yards and eight touchdowns rushing) is a year older, and he ran all over UCLA. Thompson (689 yards and five touchdowns passing, 267 yards and three touchdowns rushing) led the Wildcats to the Cactus Bowl and a surprising victory at Oklahoma State.
They are both capable quarterbacks, but K-State can only start one of them. It will be up to Snyder, and his new offensive coordinator, to decide.
On defense, much less is certain. The Wildcats must replace Will Geary, Trent Tanking, Jayd Kirby, Cre Moore, Tanner Wood and top defensive back D.J. Reed. They have capable replacements at linebacker (Elijah Sullivan, Da’Quan Patton, Justin Hughes), but unproven players elsewhere. Geary, an all-conference defensive tackle, might leave the biggest void. Not only was he strong against the run, he also led K-State in sacks.
The Wildcats will need to find a way to hit the ground running next season without him, as they face Mississippi State in Week 2 and begin Big 12 play at West Virginia.
K-State has finished strong in back-to-back years. It will need a quality start to take a step forward in 2018.