The Kansas State Wildcats stumbled out of the gate in 2013, going just 2-4 through the first half of their schedule. Bill Snyder rallied his troops down the stretch, though, with the Wildcats winning six of their final seven games last season, including a dominant 31-14 win the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl over the Michigan Wolverines, and finishing the year at 8-5. It was a major accomplishment considering the massive turnover that took place for Kansas State heading into the 2013 season.
This year, the team returns some of their key contributors and will be a darkhorse contender in the 2014 Big 12 title race. Snyder will have some of the conference’s top returning playmakers at his disposal and will be a very strong team down the stretch in regards to the conference title. If their collective experience can take the team to the next level this fall, could the Cats crash the party and win the Big 12?
Kansas State used a quarterback by committee approach in 2013 with Jake Waters and Daniel Sams splitting time leading the offense. Even in split time, Waters was impressive, throwing for 2,469 yards and 18 touchdowns with nine interceptions while completing 61.2 percent of his passes. This year, Waters will get all of the snaps as Sams has transferred, putting the offense completely in the hands of the pocket-passing Waters. With more opportunities and a year of development under his belt, Waters is poised to be one of the elite quarterbacks in the conference.
At running back, the team is looking for a new leading back after the graduation of the program’s No. 2 all-time rusher John Hubert. An untested and inexperienced back will see a huge boost in carries this season and will have to step up to maintain the offensive balance for the Wildcats in 2014. Former four-star recruit DeMarcus Robinson figures to be the frontrunner as he enters his senior year, despite rushing for just 20 yards on five carries in 2013. Also look for sophomores Jarvis Leverett and Charles Jones to see plenty of carries as the season goes on.
The strength of this Wildcat offense figures to be at receiver with the group being headlined by senior Tyler Lockett. Last season, he led the Big 12 with a 105.2 yards per game average as he racked up 1,262 yards on 81 catches with 11 touchdowns. He returns in 2014 as one of the top receivers in the country and will be a favorite target for a K-State offense that figures to rely a bit more heavily on the passing game this fall. He’ll be backed up by a talented and unheralded corps of pass catchers, including Curry Sexton who caught 39 passes for 446 yards a year ago.
The defense for the Wildcats will experience a ton of turnover heading into 2014 but their defensive line looks to be a strength with the return of Ryan Mueller at defensive end. Mueller burst onto the scene as a junior in 2013 with a team-high 11.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss. He’ll be the team’s most proven playmaker on defense, though he won’t have to do it along on the defensive line. Travis Britz returns at defensive tackle to hold down the middle of the defense after recording 37 tackles with 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in 2013.
Jonathan Truman leads the linebacker corps as the long returning starter from 2013. He finished second on the team last season with 89 tackles with 4.5 tackles for loss and a pair of forced fumbles. He’ll be tasked with stepping up as a leader of the defense in 2014 and replacing departed linebacker and leading tackler from 2013 Blake Slaughter. The rest of the group will be starting for the first time in 2014 and will be turning to Truman to lead them.
The secondary returns two starters for 2014, highlighted by safety Dante Barnett who led the team with four interceptions in 2013 to go along with 75 tackles. Randall Evans returns at one of the cornerback positions after recording a pair of interceptions last season and will need to step up as a shut-down corner on the outside. Together, Barnett and Evans will try and lead the group as they look to replace three senior defensive backs from 2013 who accounted for eight interceptions with three returned for touchdowns.
The Wildcats will be tested early in 2014 with a tough schedule, including a marquee non-conference matchup against the defending SEC champion Auburn Tigers. While the rest of their non-conference schedule is very winnable, they will have a difficult road in conference play that starts with an early road trip against the Iowa State Cyclones in week two. Later in the season, they are on the road for games against the Oklahoma Sooners and Baylor Bears, two of the favorites to win the Big 12 title this season.
With experience returning at receiver, quarterback, and along the defensive line, Kansas State has the foundation to be a very dangerous team in the Big 12 this season. If they can find impact players to step up and fill out the starting lineup, Kansas State should challenge for the conference title this fall and win around 10 games in 2014.