Sensei Snyder. It's been a hell of a thing watching Bill Snyder return to the sidelines to steady a program that was on shaky ground following the tumultuous Ron Prince interlude. Heading into the 2009 season, not only was Snyder about to turn 70 years old, but he had been out of the game for three full years, during a time of rapid innovation in the game -- nowhere more so than in the Big 12, where he was now returning to coach. Many more than will admit it now assumed that Snyder was stepping in to take a two-year beating, in order to stabilize his beloved program, and buy it time to find the right long-term successor.
Bill Snyder very much has stabilized the K-State football program, and has provided it time to plan for what's next, but as he prepares his team for Saturday night's big game at Oklahoma (6:50 PM CT, FOX) -- in a season in which he will turn 73 years old in October -- Bill Snyder is now in his fourth season as head coach, after having won 6 or more games each of his first three seasons, improving the team's record each year and culminating in last year's 10-2 overall record and second-place finish among one of the deepest and best Big 12 fields ever,earning the Wildcats a berth in the Cotton Bowl. Yes, Bill Snyder's old school Kansas State Wildcats went 7-2 in the Big 12 and finished second. Ahead of one-time No. 1 Oklahoma... ahead of Baylor and its Heisman Trophy quarterback... ahead of pre-season Top 10 A&M... and with its fourth straight win in the series, ahead of Texas.
Who knows how much longer Snyder might continue, or if Klein's senior year will be the veteran coach's last, but in his fourth year back at the helm Bill Snyder is bringing a No. 15-ranked Kansas State team into Norman, looking poised to compete for the Big 12 conference title this year with one of the physical, experienced, and disciplined defenses he is known for, coupled with a relentless ground assault and improving passing game led by a quarterback who's a throwback to another era and one of the best and toughest players -- at any position -- in the country today.
It has been, in short, classic Bill Snyder, whose teams are living embodiments of the maxim, "Do one thing, and do it well."
K-State's difficult road to the championship. Can the Wildcats follow that formula all the way to a Big 12 title this fall? As dangerous as Collin Klein and the Wildcats look in the early going, if there's a reason to be bearish on Kansas State's conference title chances, it's the schedule. The Wildcats' opening tilt at OU is just the first of five conference road games that will also see them travel away from Manhattan to take on Iowa State, West Virginia, TCU, and Baylor. Naturally, Kansas State caps the conference season by hosting Texas at home (when they'll assuredly spoil UT's season), but if the Wildcats do manage to win the Big 12 this season, there's no question they'll have earned it.
Collin Klein 2.0. Whether or not they pull it off, expectations among the Wildcat faithful are justifiably high with his return of QB Collin Klein following a brilliant junior season in which he was not only the lead offensive weapon for K-State, but one of the most productive offensive weapons in the entire country, finishing tops in the Big 12 and top-five nationally in carries (317) and rushing touchdowns (27, matching the Big 12 record held by Ricky Williams), while racking up the third-most rushing yards in the conference (1,141), and -- most important of all -- dramatically improved passing production, with an additional 1,918 yards and 13 touchdowns through the air. "Lead offensive weapon" is actually understating it: Klein was the offense last year, accounting for 3,059 yards of Total Offense -- almost 70 percent of K-State's team production for the season.
Although if and when all else fails, the Wildcats will go right back to the ‘Go Klein Go' offense, K-State's coaches desperately hoped to diversify the offensive attack in 2012. The team really likes what junior tailback John Hubert can do, but the team can't realistically hope to get too much more this season than they did from the 5-7, 185-pound quick-back a year ago (200 rushes, 970 yards, 3 TDs).
In reality, Bill Snyder knew that the only player who could really help protect Klein is Klein himself, with more and better passing; a more robust, consistent, and explosive passing game would do wonders for Klein and the offense -- providing an alternative source of production that would relieve Klein not only of having to do it all himself, but also of having to having to face eight or nine defenders in the box. And if there was any doubt that improving the passing game was the top priority this past spring, the Spring Game put that to rest, as Klein not only played the entire game with the first-team offense, but finished the scrimmage having attempted 56 passes, completing 47, including 6 touchdown strikes, in leading his squad to more than 730 yards of total offense.
And at least through three games, it's showing up on the field this season, as Klein rebounded from a sluggish start against Southwest Missouri State to absolutely torch Miami and North Texas the past two weeks: 46 completions in 56 attempts (82%) for 430 yards, 2 TDs, and 0 INTs.
Like quarterback, like team? Switching gears now to OU, although we know that tomorrow night's clash between the Sooners and Wildcats is a huge game, it's seemed an oddly difficult match up to get a read on, in large part because the Sooners are something of an unknown after two games. Following a flat performance against UTEP in a game Oklahoma was fortunate not to be trailing after three quarters and a thrashing of an FCS opponent, heading into Saturday night's big game there are signs the Sooners as a whole may mirror their enigmatic quarterback -- clearly capable of excellence, but limited by inconsistency.
Sooner Savior? Heading into the season, OU fans felt good about their stable of returning backs, but the limitations of guys like Roy Finch and Dominique Whaley were plain enough. What the Sooners had in solid rushers, they lacked in an explosive difference-maker.
Enter JuCo transfer Damien Williams, who has been electric in the Sooners' first two games, averaging nearly 14 yards per carry on his 19 rushes on the year, 5 of which he's taken to the house. Although his top-end speed is merely good, the 6-1, 215-pound back has excellent balance and agility, and a devastating ability to cut and accelerate. When he spots a crease, he explodes into -- and quickly through -- it, and Steve Edmond's angles to the ball carrier are really going to look bad against Williams if he doesn't improve by October 13th.
With Oklahoma's question marks at receiver and Landry Jones propensity to be Landry Jones, OU desperately needed a difference-maker to emerge on offense, and of all the players I'm interested in watching on Saturday night, Damien Williams tops the list.
Predictions? I already mentioned that this game seems a hard one to get a good read on, so I certainly don't have anything to offer in way of a confident prediction. I don't know how much the Sooners' defense has improved. I don't know what Damien Williams is going to look like against a real defense. I don't know how much better, if any, Kansas State is than last year, when they were obliterated by OU 58-17 in Manhattan.
I do know that the Sooners are a ridiculously difficult team to beat in Norman under Stoops, and that they've had a week off to prepare for this game. Which is why as much as I want to like Kansas State in this game, my instincts are all going the other way. From the gut: Oklahoma 37 Kansas State 27
Who you got?