KSAL Staff - December 5, 2016 8:00 am
MAC STEVENSON LIVES IN SALINA, AND WRITES A WEEKLY COLUMN FOR OVER TEN NEWSPAPERS IN KANSAS
Kansas State has a formidable football team that finished the regular season all alone in fourth place in the Big 12 with a 6-3 record and 8-4 overall. The Wildcats are set for another bowl game. And next year K-State has the potential to be a great ballclub.
Coach Bill Snyder summed up the season in his usual succinct way, saying, “I would suggest we were probably one of the two best teams in the conference, in regards to how we finished . . . and maybe one of the top teams in the country.” That brings to mind another old saying: “Speak softly, but carry a big stick.”
Snyder returns most of his key players on both offense and defense, but the offense could be stellar indeed. K-State will have one of the best offensive lines in the Big 12 and maybe the nation; starting tackles Dalton Risner and Scott Franz will be back along with center Reid Najvar, guard Tyler Mitchell, and tight end Dayton Valentine.
Running back Alex Barnes—with fullback Winston Dimel blocking for him—can become a big-time player on the national level. Wide receiver Byron Pringle will lead an outstanding receiving corps.
In addition, quarterback Jesse Ertz returns to spark the talent-laden offense. Ertz has proved himself as a dangerous runner; his only possible weakness is passing. If Ertz can improve his passing ability, which isn’t bad, he will be a superb QB in 2017.
The aforementioned players form just a partial list; quality depth will be available and all of the talented players who helped during this superb season haven’t been acknowledged.
K-State’s defense is exceptional and most of those key players will also be back for another season. If you combine the offensive and defensive players returning for Kansas State, it’s going to be an anticipation-filled summer.
If Bill Snyder decides to coach for another year—and there’s nothing to indicate that he won’t—he’ll have a chance to exit after another in a long line of great seasons. Will the Wildcats be contenders for the national four-team playoffs? From here, it appears that they have that potential.
Before they defeated Stanford (89-74) last Saturday, Kansas was ranked fourth in the nation in most national polls; whether or not the Jayhawks deserve such a lofty rating is open to conjecture.
It could be argued that North Carolina, Duke, Villanova, Kentucky, UCLA, and Indiana all have more talent than KU and that may be so; however, that could change before the NCAA Tournament.
The Jayhawks’ lineup of perimeter players is equal to or better than most of the above-mentioned teams. Guards Frank Mason, Devontʹe Graham, Josh Jackson, Lagerald Vick, and Svi Mykhailiuk have all been stellar performers so far. And Jackson—at this stage of his career—is the best player Coach Self has recruited at KU.
Kansas doesn’t match up with the other nationally ranked teams in the pivot. Landen Lucas and Carlton Bragg have been ineffective; however, Bragg and Lucas showed progress in both effort and efficiency during the Stanford game. If these two inside players play up to their capabilities, the Jayhawks will be able to compete with any rated teams—their perimeter players are that talented.
It should be noted that Bragg hasn’t played much at a big-time level; he spent most of last season on the bench. Bragg is the one player who could become a consistent offensive force in the pivot and that’s what the Jayhawks need.
It’s premature to assess the Big 12 because of the disparity in schedules, but it looks like a competitive race is shaping up. The league isn’t the best in the nation, but there are a lot of young teams that will improve during the season.
Through the December 3 games, Baylor and TCU were unbeaten at 8-0. Baylor has played a representative schedule and TCU has beaten a bunch of patsies. Kansas, Texas Tech, and Kansas State had 7-1 records; West Virginia was 6-1; Oklahoma State stood at 6-2, Iowa State and Oklahoma were 5-2, and Texas was last with a 4-3 record.
Texas Tech and OU are the two worst teams in the Big 12 and Baylor and KU are the two best, but not by far. The conference race will be close and exciting and it will be challenging to win on the road. Texas is a sleeper; the Longhorns are playing a lot of talented freshmen and they will improve by the time conference play begins.
Kansas is going after a record-tying 13th consecutive conference championship. If Bragg and the other inside players become productive in the pivot, the Jayhawks could run away with the title. But that’s a big “if.”