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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of: Kansas State

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A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the long offseason.

The least you should know about Kansas State...
2007 Record • Past Five Years
2007: 5-7 (3-5 Big 12, 4th/North)
2003-07: 32-30 (18-23 Big 12)
Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*
2004-08: 18 • 36 • 41 • 38 • 27
Returning Starters, Roughly
12 (7 Offense, 6 Defense)
Best Player
Ian Campbell’s sack total fell last year to 4.5 from 11.5 in 2006, his tackles for loss from 17 to 11, but league coaches still thought enough of him to vote Campbell first team all-Big 12 off a sketchy overall defense for the second consecutive year. He’s the best pass rushing end in the conference by reputation, and athletic enough to project as an outside linebacker in the NFL. In other words, the kid’s, you know, bona fide. Nice hair/stubble thing going there, too.
Officially Sanctioned Absurdity
You can run into Willie Wildcat anywhere: at football games, at basketball games, exhorting fans to wave towels via guitar solo, gazing heroically from wheat fields, or just relaxing against the only rock in Kansas. Nowhere does he fail to terrify in his freakish mundanity. Looking like a walk-on who wandered into an animal husbadry experiment gone horribly wrong, it is Willie’s very grotesque nature that reminds us of the humanity inherent in all our anthropomorphic cats, dogs, birds of prey and snarling equines. His malformity may be met with disgust, with pity, with mockery; but never with apathy. In it, we see ourselves. And we cannot look away.
* According to Rivals
What's Changed. James Johnson and great white receiving hope Jordy Nelson made up K-State's first 1,000-yard rushing/receiving combo since the 2003 conference champions and leave a dearth of offensive playmakers in their wake. Nelson and Johnson alone made up almost 60 percent of the team's yards for scrimmage last year, to say nothing of their efforts on punt and kick returns, respectively. Nelson was one of those guys who was every bit as valuable as his 122 catches (over 12 games; do the math) suggests, maybe more, as this clip indicates, for his versatility and popular, walk-on-made-good vibe:

For those of you who didn't stick around to the end, the last frames are the most succinct possible summary of Kansas State's 2007 season: "Jordy, thanks for not sucking like everyone else did." Now it's up to "everyone else" to figure out how to replace ten catches and 155 total yards - including Johnson's average contribution, 298 yards - every time out.

What's the Same. Hope for the offense rests almost exclusively with leviathan quarterback Josh Freeman, who despite the November nosedive appeared to mature into the formidable, pocket-bound slinger his recruiting hype suggested. Freeman was wild as a freshman, barely hitting half of his passes for the season and posting an atrocious 6:15 TD:INT ratio; his passer rating at year's end was a hair over 103, barely good enough to crack the top 100 nationally. Every trend rocketed upward in Year Two: completion percentage was well over 50 percent in every game, the TD:INT ratio reversed to 18:11 (minus Freeman's two worst games, against Auburn and Kansas, it was 17:6 in the other ten) and the passer rating never dipped to its previous lows after the opening loss at Auburn. Freeman was still primarily a move-the-sticks manager, but if his rate of improvement from sophomore to junior is even a third what it was from freshman to sophomore, he'll probably deserve all-Big 12 and set pro scouts a-droolin'.

But the problem last year was not Freeman, or any part of the offense, which over six losses in the last eight games averaged 422 yards and scored 24, 39, 20, 31, 32 and 29 points. Not enough in the Big 12, not when the once-proud defense is hitting the low ebb of a sustained decline that has shown no give in the transition to the Ron Prince administration:

KSU Defense: National Ranks
Record Rush Pass Pass Eff. Total Scoring
2003 11-4 17 7 12 6 8
2004 4-7 60 40 86 43 84
2005 5-6 30 74 61 45 74
2006 7-6 78 53 59 70 66
2007 5-7 49 99 89 69 86

This year's group brings back its only notable player, pass rushing end Ian Campbell, but loses three-fourths of the starting secodary and another three players in the front seven. Stuart Scott-eyed coordinator Tim Tibesar remains on board ad there is not outward sign of progress.

Punt, Other Team, Punt. It's hard to think of any single special teams unit that got more mileage last year than K-State's punt return team, which blocked three kicks and accounted for five touchdowns, two on returns by Nelson (who only returned five all together), one by regular returner Deon Murphy and another off one of the blocks by Courtney Herndon. Murphy remains a dangerous option, but the odds against another big play fest by one segment of the special teams are too long to consider.

By the same turn, the kickoff return team probably won't be allowing three touchdowns run back agaist it two years in a row - though, of course, a little lane/contain practice never hurts.

For the Record. I'm thrilled to note the return of four-fifths of the best-named line in football, including every member of the triumphant trio of Gerard Spexarth, Penisini (heh heh) Liu and the immortal Alesana Alesana. They'll probably be joined this year by Brock Unruh (best pronounced like a stereotypically intense Japanese hibachi chef: "Brock un-RUH!. Not that they can necessarily block anyone, but that's beside the point.

Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. If there's going to be any kind of turnaround defensively, it's going to come from the crateful of junior college signees arriving in the fall, from which some good is bound to be plucked: the Wildcats inked nineteen third-year guys in a 32-man class in Februrary, more than twice as many as any other school in the Big 12 and surely a record even for a traditionally JUCO-heavy school like K-State; there are as many junior college guys in this class (4) from Bakersfield College in California alone as any other school except Oklahoma State signed at all. That's no way to build a program for the long haul, but for immediate impact, there are couple names the `Cats are relying on to get things back into working order: DT Daniel Calvin and LB Ulla Pomele are four stars accompanied by not one, but two - count `em! - two defensive ends reputed to have turned in a 4.5 40 times, Antonio Felder and Grant Valentine. Whatever that's worth. Pomele and another linebacker, Hansen Sekona, are in for the Spring.

Also: Interested women can still register for the ever popular "Football 101" on April 5 here.

Kansas State on You Tube. Back in the day, TBS' own Erin Andrews rocks, I guess, with the KSU band and Wabash Cannonball against USC in 2002:

FYI: more than five years later, that's still the Trojans' last non-conference loss in the regular season.

See Also: Donald Rumsfeld flips off a K-State student. ... The biggest win in KSU history, and the most devastating loss, three weeks apart. ... And an old, ridiculous play by the forgotten Michael Bishop.

Best-Case. Big 12 teams usually would never circle Fresno State as a key game, but after the Bulldogs put KSU out of their November misery last year, nothing could wipe the bad taste out of the Wildcats' mouth faster than returning the favor in Week Two. There are two winnable games for there that will set the bar for the Big 12 season: at Louisville on a Thursday night and at home against Texas Tech, the conference opener. A 6-0 start is within reach; there are two virtually certain losses in the second half of the slate (Oklahoma and Missouri) and at least one more among Texas A&M, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska. But there's not enough distance between the Wildcats and any of those teams to rule out an 8-4 or 9-3 season and a run at the Alamo or Holiday Bowl.

Worst-Case. On the flip side, there is enough distance to see the Wildcats wallowing in the division basement with Iowa State - the Wildcats were just 3-5 in the conference last year with an unlikely upset of Texas and Baylor and Oklahoma State on the schedule rather than Texas Tech and Texas A&M. If the chips fall the same way, with repeat losses to Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri and expected losses to Oklahoma, Tech and A&M, the Wildcats would have to run the table in toss-up games (Fresno, Louisville, Colorado) and avoid another upset at the hands of Iowa State just to get back to .500 and bowl eligibility. The finale with the Cyclones could shape up as a showdown just to avoid last place.

Non-Binding Forecast. Take What You Can Get: With teams that can finish anywhere from second to sixth in their division, split the distance: most likely is that the Wildcats split the Fresno-Louisville tilt in non-conference, finish 3-5 again in-conference and pray for the Big 12's last bowl spot to fall in its lap. Last year, that was the Texas Bowl, where KSU was waxed by Rutgers in 2006. With a team that lost a little, returns a little, and doesn't look appreciably better or worse than the last four years have led us to expect, I wouldn't hold my breath for any better than that. The most realistic highlight is a win over Kansas.