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Five bold predictions and game-by-game picks for Kansas State's 2020 football season

Wichita eagle logo Wichita eagle 9/4/2020 By Kellis Robinett, The Wichita Eagle

What promises to be the strangest football season in Kansas State history is nearly upon us.

Instead of opening up the season with non-conference games against Buffalo, North Dakota and Vanderbilt — as originally scheduled — the Wildcats will begin Year 2 under Chris Klieman against Arkansas State.

Instead of playing in front of a packed house at Bill Snyder Family Stadium and more than 100,000 fans at certain road venues, the Wildcats will play in front of small crowds with fans socially distancing. There might not be marching bands or much traditional pageantry on Saturdays this fall.

Instead of dissecting what Skylar Thompson will be able to accomplish as a senior quarterback and analyzing how many sacks Wyatt Hubert can pile up at defensive end, many are wondering if K-State players can stay healthy and avoid the coronavirus long enough to play a full season.

Welcome to college football during a pandemic.

Under normal circumstances, K-State would appear on its way to another successful season that ends with a winning record and a trip to a bowl. But there are no guarantees a full season will be played. And there might not be a traditional postseason this year.

The Wildcats have experience at the right positions (quarterback, linebacker, defensive end) but are breaking in new players at key spots (offensive line, defensive tackle, defensive back). You can see Klieman’s fingerprint on the team after an 8-5 start in Year 1, but there was an offseason change at defensive coordinator.

Unpredictability reigns.

What better time to make a few predictions.

Here are five bold ones for K-State’s upcoming season and game-by-game picks.

1. Skylar Thompson will challenge for All-Big 12 honors at QB

He might not put up the gaudy statistics necessary to actually land a spot on one of the Big 12’s two all-conference teams, but Thompson will be in the mix when the season comes to an end. That’s saying something when you consider Sam Ehlinger, Brock Purdy, Spencer Rattler, Charlie Brewer, Spencer Sanders and Alan Bowman also play quarterback in this league.

Experience will be the key factor for Thompson. He has been starting games for the Wildcats since he was a redshirt freshman, and he has blossomed since Klieman took over as coach. He is coming off his finest season with the Wildcats (2,315 yards and 12 touchdowns passing, 405 yards and 11 touchdowns rushing) and he seems ready to take another leap as a senior.

Early on last season, he was nation’s top-graded quarterback by Pro Football Focus, and he made some big-time throws while minimizing mistakes. His precision dropped as the season went on, following an injury to receiver Malik Knowles. At times, he was hesitant to throw and too eager to leave the pocket. After studying film, correcting those errors became his main focus.

Knowles also put on weight during the offseason to help prevent new injuries and rising playmakers like Joshua Youngblood and Wykeen Gill seem ready to fill the void left by Dalton Schoen. Tight end Briley Moore will also provide some big-play potential across the middle.

A new offensive line poses some challenges, but this should still be Thompson’s finest year in a K-State uniform. That should be deserving of at least a Honorable Mention nod.

2. At least one game will be postponed or canceled

It’s bound to happen. At some point during the season, K-State or one of its opponents will be running low on offensive linemen or quarterbacks or defensive backs because of the coronavirus and the Big 12 will decide it’s not fair or safe to play that week’s game as originally scheduled.

This may happen several times. It’s why the Big 12 inserted three off weeks into every team’s schedule and created the flexibility to postpone its championship game.

No Big 12 teams were forced to suspend practice once preseason camp began in July, but playing games that count will be a different story with teams traveling across the country every week. We have already seen games postponed in other conferences. The Big 12 won’t be immune.

3. K-State will miss its senior-laden offensive line

Offensive line was one position that Klieman didn’t have to worry about during his first season as K-State’s football coach. Though the Wildcats weren’t elite up front, they were the definition of solid. With five seniors in the starting lineup and Josh Rivas rotating in at guard, they paved the way for K-State to average 358.9 yards per game in a slow-paced offense.

That might not be so easy this season, as the Wildcats will turn to an inexperienced group to block. Coaches are high on potential starters Cooper Beebe, Ben Adler, Kaitori Leveston and Rivas. And new center Noah Johnson was voted a captain. But none of those players, other than Rivas, are proven. This is also a position where a COVID-19 outbreak could easily sideline key players, given their close proximity on the field.

The possibility of starting a rag tag group of blockers is a far cry from leaning on five seniors.

4. Joe Klanderman will hit ground running as D-coordinator

Forget about Klanderman missing out on the opportunity to install his own defense during spring practice. That is overblown.

Klanderman spent last season coaching the team’s safeties and the Wildcats were strong against the pass, allowing 202.9 yards per game. He has lots of experience coaching under Klieman, dating back to his time at North Dakota State, and seems like the perfect fit to replace Scottie Hazelton under the circumstances. He may try to be more aggressive than his predecessor in some areas, but he won’t make any wholesale changes.

Also: K-State has the potential to be really good on defense. Wyatt Hubert is back after a stellar sophomore season, Justin Hughes and Elijah Sullivan bring senior leadership at linebacker, there is lots of young talent in the secondary and Khalid Duke seems poised for a breakout season. Defensive tackle is the only true question mark, but Klanderman will figure that out.

The Wildcats had one of the Big 12’s best defenses last season, and that is unlikely to change with a new coordinator.

5. Experience will be an X-Factor for this team

One reason the Wildcats aren’t receiving much preseason love from national experts is because of their lack of returning starters on offense. Outside of Skylar Thompson and Malik Knowles, everyone else is new. If you want to get technical about things, K-State returns the fewest starters of any team in the conference.

But that is a misleading stat. The Wildcats return experience where it matters most. Thompson is a four-year starter and the unquestioned leader of the offense. Justin Hughes, Elijah Sullivan, Wyatt Hubert and A.J. Parker form the heart of the defense. And many of K-State’s new starters have valuable experience.

Harry Trotter and Jacardia Wright both had big moments last season at running back. Joshua Youngblood was a freshman All-American splitting time between receiver and return man. Briley Moore was an all-conference player in the Missouri Valley before transferring to K-State.

The Wildcats have experienced players, some of them just aren’t returning starters. They are better positioned to play a season filled with uncertainty than most.

GAME-BY-GAME PREDICTIONS

Sep. 12 vs. Arkansas State (2:30 p.m. on FS1): This matchup should be comparable to the original season-opener against Buffalo. Arkansas State won eight games last season and is usually one of the better teams in the Sun Belt. This won’t be a cupcake game for K-State, especially with limited numbers at receiver and offensive line, but the Wildcats are the better team and Chris Klieman was dynamite in his first game last season. K-State will also get to scout the Red Wolves when they play Memphis on Saturday. K-State 35, Arkansas State 21.

Sept. 26 at Oklahoma (11 a.m. FOX): Few will pick the Wildcats to win their conference opener on the road against the Sooners, but few picked them to beat Oklahoma at home last season and that didn’t stop K-State from winning that game 48-41. So you can’t rule out another upset from Klieman’s crew here. The Wildcats seem to be getting the Sooners at a good time, before new quarterback Spencer Rattler gets fully acclimated to the starting job. Home field also won’t be much of a factor. But K-State will be breaking in new starters of its own at several positions and beating OU in back-to-back years is never easy. Oklahoma 37, K-State 28.

Oct. 3 vs. Texas Tech: This is the first game of the season where health might be more important than talent. Without an off week between games, there won’t be much time for players on either team to recover from a COVID outbreak. That adds a wildcard element to this, and just about every other game, on the schedule. Still, K-State has a great track record against the Red Raiders in Manhattan. Patrick Mahomes didn’t even win here. K-State 40, Texas Tech 30.

Oct. 10 at TCU: Gary Patterson has a history of bouncing back after a down season, but that might not be so easy this year following the loss of major NFL talent and the unexpected absence of quarterback Max Duggan. By comparison, K-State returns a veteran quarterback and lots of experience on defense. This seems like a good opportunity for the Wildcats to win their first road game. K-State 28, TCU 24.

Oct. 24 vs. Kansas: Will the Jayhawks foolishly allow more video of Les Miles taunting the Wildcats to go viral ahead of this game like they did last season? That’s the biggest question mark of this year’s Sunflower Showdown. K-State 41, Kansas 14.

Oct. 31 at West Virginia: The Mountaineers surprised the Wildcats last season by switching quarterbacks from Austin Kendall to Jarret Doege. West Virginia won two of its final three games with him leading the offense. Despite the upgrade, expect K-State to be better prepared this time around. A win here would have the Wildcats off to a very hot start. K-State 27, West Virginia 24.

Nov. 7 vs. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys will be a challenge for new K-State coordinator Joe Klanderman. Chuba Hubbard ran circles around the Wildcats last season, and he’s back as a Heisman candidate. Spencer Sanders and Tylan Wallace also decided the NFL could wait for another year in college. This will be the first of a difficult closing schedule for K-State. Oklahoma State 40, K-State 24.

Nov. 21 at Iowa State: A big season could be in store for the Cyclones ... if they can figure out how to win a few more close games. Iowa State went 7-6 last season, with four of its losses coming by a combined total of 11 points. Ouch. Signs point to that changing with quarterback Brock Purdy back as a junior and nine starters returning on defense. But Farmageddon is always close, and the Wildcats tend to win in this rivalry. K-State 24, Iowa State 23.

Nov. 28 at Baylor: Dave Aranda should eventually find success with the Bears, but it might not happen in Year 1. It has been a trying offseason in Waco. Without spring practice or a trio of cupcake games to help prepare for Big 12 play, it’s hard to see a new coach building on what Matt Rhule accomplished last season, even with Charlie Brewer back at quarterback. Klieman is a year ahead of Aranda, and that will make a big difference in this game. K-State 35, Baylor 30.

Dec. 5 vs. Texas: Simply playing this game will be considered a success, regardless of the result, because it will mean college football made it through the entire regular season without shutting down during a pandemic. That being said, this will be a difficult season-finale for K-State without a traditional home crowd. Texas 28, K-State 23.

Final Record: 7-3 (6-3 Big 12).

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©2020 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)

Visit The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.) at www.kansas.com

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