- David Ubben, College Football
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DALLAS -- The math doesn't add up. Since when does 10+17=sixth?
A year ago, Kansas State was expected to finish eighth in the Big 12 with a group of unknowns. Instead, quarterback Collin Klein carried the Wildcats to a second-place finish in the Big 12 and 10 wins for the first time since 2004.
That sent K-State to the Cotton Bowl, and despite losing an ugly game to a top five Arkansas team, the Wildcats return 17 starters, including the cornerstones on both sides of the ball. Klein returns, as do linebacker Arthur Brown and cornerback Nigel Malone.
And yet, the team that finished 15th in the final AP poll after last season finds itself opening this season outside the top 20 in each major poll and picked to finish sixth in the Big 12.
"Why? I don’t know the reason for that. That’s probably above my pay grade," Klein said. "I’m on the ground, I don’t get to get up on a balcony and look around that much."
The simple answer? K-State won last year but didn't win pretty. The Wildcats' 8-1 record in games decided by one possession has gotten plenty of attention this offseason.
What's gotten less attention is K-State's penchant for winning games despite being outgained by opponents. Coach Bill Snyder's Cats did that seven times last season.
Considering there only has been 10 other times that's happened under Snyder in his past 10 seasons, the skepticism seems deserved.
But is it? What has happened every year under Snyder? Improvement. Even Snyder's peers across the league could only shake their heads at the perception of the Big 12's returning second-place team.
"Ridiculous. They're pretty good," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "Obviously we’re all smart enough as coaches not to get too fired up about -- with all due respect -- what y’all think."
In short, nobody's taking a team with loads of toughness and few mistakes lightly.
"I’m sure Coach Snyder is fired up about not being one of the top three [in the league]," Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville said. "You don’t want to be picked that high. You want, No. 1, to be able to sell your players on [disrespect]. No. 2, give your guys room for improvement. I’m sure they’ll use that on the bulletin boards."
Even Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads, when informed of Kansas State's preseason spot in the Big 12 poll, gave a chuckle.
"Watching all that film that we watched last season in preparation for that game and then facing [Klein], I wouldn’t count them out of any game," he said. "Five teams ahead of them? That’s an interesting call."
Snyder? Well, he's not complaining about the preseason disrespect.
"I don’t know how good it’ll be," the 72-year-old Snyder said of his team. "If I were voting, I’d probably put us at 99 or something like that."
Last year, the preseason expectations certainly made an appearance on the oft-mentioned "bulletin board."
"I think when they were selected whatever they were last year down the ladder, there was some feeling expressed about that," Snyder said. "Players look at that stuff. I could tell them not to, but they’re going to. I don’t tell them not to, but they read etc., etc., and I’m sure probably take issue with some of those things.
"By and large, it’s what do we do today."
Kansas State couldn't touch Big 12 leader Oklahoma State (plus-21) in turnover margin, but the Wildcats (plus-12) were up seven on the Big 12's No. 3 team. K-State forced 27 turnovers and turned it over just 15 times, three fewer than any other team in the Big 12. Those 15 turnovers were tied for seventh-fewest nationally.
Snyder can't worry about trying to duplicate those numbers, but he can focus on his 16 Goals for Success, none of which include any talk of turnover margin.
"Every year is different. You can look at it a lot of different ways -- I’m not going to elaborate on it -- but if you don’t shore this up or get better here or get better there, there’s some risk out there," Snyder said. "It may not always be right on, but there are enough of those to create some issues. We’ve got to get a lot better in some areas."
Fixing a pass defense that ranked outside the Big 12's top half and gave up more than 7 yards per attempt could be at the top of that list. Shoring up an offensive line that loses three starters from last season's team might be of utmost importance as well.
"Right now, it’s about trying to become the best we can be individually and as a group to put together a body of work that at the end of the year we can look back on and say we were better at the end than when we started," Klein said.
It's exactly what K-State did in 2011, when the season began with a near disaster. Klein needed a late touchdown drive to knock off FCS member Eastern Kentucky, 10-7.
"If you watched the Eastern Kentucky game, I don’t know if there was an area we didn’t grow," Klein said. "It was about as abominable as you can find, with turnovers, decision-making, it was just a disaster."
The Wildcats have come a long way since that game and might expect some similar growth during the offseason and the fall. How much? We'll find out soon enough.
For now, K-State isn't too worried about what the pollsters think.
"There’s people that are going to think you’re great. There’s going to be people that think you’re terrible, and what ultimately matters is how we as a group come together on Saturday afternoon and execute, and how we prepare ourselves to be able to do that," Klein said. "That’s something we can control. We can’t control what people think of our team, how good they think we are or how bad we are."
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