The Wildcats are back.
After a 31-30 road win over #11 Oklahoma on Saturday, Kansas State leads the Big 12 with a 3-0 conference record. With a 5-1 overall mark, KSU replaced the Sooners in the 11-spot in both the AP and USA Today Top 25 polls on Sunday. Coming off a pedestrian 8-5 mark in 2013, which followed a pair of AP Top-15 finishes in 2011 (10-3) and 2012 (11-1), the Wildcats have returned to national prominence.
That’s what folks in Manhattan, Kansas, grew accustomed to during Bill Snyder’s first stint as head coach. In 17 years from 1989 through 2005, he led the Wildcats to 10 seasons with at least 9 victories. Under his guidance, KSU reached a bowl game in 11 straight seasons, and gained as many wins (136) as the program had in its previous 54 years. It was that resounding success, after decades as a conference doormat, that prompted Kansas State to coax Snyder out of retirement and return in 2009.
The question is: How are they doing it? In a landscape dominated by traditional powerhouses like Texas, Oklahoma State and the aforementioned Sooners, the Wildcats’ on-field success has hardly translated to any broad recruiting appeal. Blue chippers are simply not lining up to play for Snyder. Here’s how Rivals.com assessed their incoming classes in each of the past six seasons:
Kansas State Recruiting Rankings in Big 12
|2009||12th of 12|
|2010||11th of 12|
|2011||10th of 10|
|2012||8th of 10|
|2013||10th of 10|
|2014||7th of 10|
KSU’s lone loss this season came at home against then-#5 Auburn, 20-14, holding the Tigers to their lowest point total of Gus Malzahn’s head-coaching tenure. By attacking the line of scrimmage with safeties and using defensive ends and outside linebackers to contain the outside threat, the Wildcats held Auburn to 359 yards total and 128 yards rushing, also the Tigers’ worst output in those categories since Malzahn took over in 2013. Bear in mind that Rivals ranked Auburn’s incoming recruiting classes in the top 10 ‒ nationally ‒ every year since 2010.
The most interesting aspect of that loss is that it was Kansas State’s offensive mistakes that buried them, not the talent disparity or the so-called “class” difference.. The Wildcats had a pass intercepted in the end zone that bounced off the hands of a receiver, plus another INT and a lost fumble. Losing the turnover battle 3-1 with 74 fewer yards of offense than the Tigers – not even the strong Wildcat defense explains how the hell they were able to remain in this game.
The answer is simple: Kansas State committed zero penalties. Meanwhile, Auburn racked up six infractions for 46 yards, including three that gave the Wildcats first downs.
Under Snyder, the Wildcats are simply not a team that is prone to self-defeating mistakes like turnovers and penalties. This disciplined and meticulous brand of football keeps a team of lower pedigree players competitive in games against blue-bloods like Oklahoma and Texas.
After finishing 5th in the Big 12 in fewest penalties in 2009, Kansas State has had either the lowest or second-lowest number of penalties in the conference every year from 2010-2014. Snyder’s teams do not provide opponents with free yards or otherwise shoot themselves in the foot.
This is especially the case with teams like West Virginia and Baylor who broke the conference record for combined penalties last week. Baylor averages 10.9 penalties per game for 104.6 yards, while Kansas State averages 3.7 penalties for 30.3 yards. Baylor’s faster tempo explains some of the difference, but not all of it.
Furthermore, since Snyder’s return their offense has consistently had fewer passes picked off than their opposition:
Interceptions per Pass Attempt
By throwing just over half as many interceptions, and at a lower rate, while committing the fewest or second-fewest penalties, Kansas State seems to systematically eliminate mistakes from their conference performances. Committing fewer turnovers results in better field position and fewer “short fields” for the defense to protect. Avoiding interceptions reduces the likelihood of a turnover resulting in a score, something that almost always swings a game, such as Kansas State’s pick six against Oklahoma on Saturday. And avoiding penalties keeps opponents from free yards and/or first downs, prolonging drives, and, offensively, short-circuiting their own efforts to score. These are significant factors in the Wildcats’ ability to bridge the significant recruiting gap and compete for conference titles in the Big 12.
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the one game they had this season where they threw more INTs than their opponent, against Auburn, might be their undoing in the long run. The loss might not end their hopes for a conference championship but, given their performance thus far, they may really regret it come Bowl Season.