Following the shocking retirement of Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops and the revival of the conference championship game, the Big 12 is wide open in 2017. With a talented, veteran squad, momentum from a strong finish, and a manageable schedule, the Kansas State Wildcats are one of the teams capable of challenging the Sooners for the league title.
Kansas State, which finished 9-4 last season after winning six of its final seven games, is one of several teams that have a legitimate chance of making it to the Big 12 title game. Head coach Bill Snyder’s Wildcats are always a threat, but K-State is at its best with a veteran quarterback. Fortunately for Snyder, Jesse Ertz, who led the team in rushing as well as passing in 2016, is one of seven returning starters on an offense that ranked in the top half of the Big 12 in scoring (32.2 ppg, fifth) and ranked No. 22 nationally with 231.8 rushing yards per contest.
The Wildcats were the best in the Big 12 defensively last season, statistically speaking, though the unit must replace leading tackler Elijah Lee and conference defensive player of the year Jordan Willis among others. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic K-State can slow down opponents well enough to compete for the title.
Here is Kansas State’s 2017 schedule, ranked from easiest to most difficult matchup.
12. Sept. 9 vs. Charlotte
A fledging program entering its third FBS season, Charlotte was 4-8 last year, won three games against Conference USA opponents on the road and lost by a single point in two other league games. Led by former K-State defensive back Brad Lambert, the 49ers allowed 34.6 points per game, which ranked No. 102 in the nation, and 6.03 yards per play (89th in FBS). Charlotte struggled most against the pass, allowing 309.8 yards through the air per contest.
11. Sept. 2 vs. Central Arkansas
Usually a game against an FCS opponent would be the easiest on the schedule, but the Bears won 10 games last season, including a 28-23 victory over Arkansas State, and made it to the second round of the FCS playoffs. Also, Kansas State has slipped up against FCS opponents in season openers before. In 2013, the Wildcats lost 24-21 to North Dakota State.
10. Oct. 28 at Kansas
You know the schedule sets up well when an in-state rivalry game on the road is the easiest conference game of the season. The Wildcats have beaten Kansas eight straight times, and have won every matchup on the road since 2004. However, this year’s trip to Lawrence comes one week after K-State’s heavyweight clash with Oklahoma, which could make it a trap game.
Kansas has shown improvement under third-year head coach David Beaty, and the Jayhawks’ defense features All-Big 12 pass rusher Dorance Armstrong Jr., who had 10 sacks last season. KU may be a year away from making a real run at a bowl game, but the Jayhawks have done well to close the talent gap with some of the other teams in the league.
9. Nov. 25 vs. Iowa State
K-State’s other big natural rival is Iowa State, which, like Kansas, made progress in 2016 and has a more talented roster today than it did last year. Though, also like the Jayhawks, the Cyclones still sit toward the bottom of the conference pecking order.
The Wildcats host Iowa State in the regular season finale. It’s likely the Cyclones will have secured their eighth straight losing season and fifth straight without a postseason appearance by that point.
8. Sept. 16 at Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt took a huge step forward in head coach Derek Mason’s third season. The Commodores beat SEC rivals Ole Miss and Tennessee in the final two games of the regular season to secure the first bowl game for the program since 2013. With a veteran roster, Mason has a chance to make it two in a row.
Mason welcomes back eight starters on offense, including talented running back Ralph Webb and quarterback Kyle Shurmur. Seven starters return on defense, though the team must replace star linebacker Zach Cunningham. It’s a game the Wildcats should win, but playing in SEC country is always difficult.
7. Sept. 30 vs. Baylor
After three non-conference games and a bye week, Kansas State opens its Big 12 slate by hosting Baylor. The Bears will have already faced conference favorite Oklahoma at home before their visit to Manhattan, which should play in K-State’s favor.
Baylor struggled last year and finished 7-6 under interim head coach Jim Grobe, including six straight losses to end the regular season before beating Boise State in the Cactus Bowl. The Bears scored 13.5 fewer points per game compared to Art Briles’ last season in charge, and new head coach Matt Rhule’s system isn’t likely to reverse that trend – though Rhule should produce better results on defense. Last year, Baylor allowed 430.8 total yards and 200.7 rushing yards per game, to the tune of 5.4 yards per play and 4.2 yards per carry.
6. Nov. 4 at Texas Tech
Even with the coaching change at Baylor, and a trip to Lubbock, few would think a game against Texas Tech would be tougher than hosting the Bears in the conference opener. However, the matchup with the Red Raiders will be the sixth of nine consecutive Big 12 games for Kansas State. On top of that, this game is uncomfortably sandwiched between a rivalry tilt with Kansas and a pivotal home date with West Virginia.
The Red Raiders must replace first-round NFL draft pick Patrick Mahomes II and leading receiver Jonathan Giles, who transferred, but Kliff Kingsbury’s squad is sure to continue to light up scoreboards even with Nic Shimonek leading the offense.
5. Nov. 11 vs. West Virginia
West Virginia gave Kansas State arguably its toughest loss of the season last year, overcoming deficits of 13-0 at halftime and 16-3 in the fourth quarter to win 17-16. There are a lot of new faces on the West Virginia roster, and it’s unlikely the Mountaineers reach 10 wins again in 2017, but there’s plenty of optimism in Morgantown. New quarterback Will Grier should have nine games under his belt by the time the Mountaineers travel to Manhattan, and a young defense that includes eight new starters will be similarly battle-tested.
4. Oct. 14 vs. TCU
Kansas State beat TCU 30-6 in the regular season finale in Fort Worth last year, as the Wildcats shut out the Horned Frogs in the second half. The 2017 matchup is slotted between a trip to Texas and a home game against Oklahoma, giving K-State one of the toughest three-game stretches of the Big 12 campaign.
The most experienced team in the Big 12, TCU returns nine starters on offense and 91.7 percent of its offensive production from last season, which ranks among the top 10 in the nation. The defense returns seven starters and three quarters of its tackles from last year, which is the second most in the league.
3. Oct. 7 at Texas
Despite three straight losing seasons under Charlie Strong, the Longhorns are arguably the most talented team in the Big 12, and it’s never easy to pick up a victory in Austin. K-State’s last road win against the Longhorns came in 2011.
New head coach Tom Herman and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando welcome back 10 starters from a talented defense that underachieved in 2016. The offense must replace star running back D’Onta Foreman, but quarterback Shane Buechele and three starters return up front, as well as a host of talented skill position players.
2. Nov. 18 at Oklahoma State
This could be the year for Oklahoma State, which won 10 (or 11 depending on where you fall on the Central Michigan debacle) games last season, and returns most of its firepower, namely quarterback Mason Rudolph and explosive wide receiver James Washington.
Kansas State gave the Cowboys all they could handle in Manhattan a year ago before falling 43-37 – the Wildcats’ lone blemish over their final seven games. This year’s clash in Stillwater – one of the toughest places to play in the Big 12 – could have title game implications.
1. Oct. 21 vs. Oklahoma
It’s rare for a team’s toughest opponent to be scheduled for Homecoming, but that’s the case when Kansas State hosts Oklahoma in October.
Even with the abrupt retirement of longtime head coach Bob Stoops, whom Bill Snyder never beat at home, the Sooners are still the heavy favorite to win the Big 12. Oklahoma has the inside track to the College Football Playoff, and quarterback Baker Mayfield is a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender.
A matchup of undefeated top-10 teams isn’t out of the realm of possibility, but the Wildcats would have to survive a tough three-game stretch against Baylor, at Texas and vs. TCU to do it. Nevertheless, every game on the schedule – including this date with Oklahoma – is winnable.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.