The second to last game of the 2021-22 college football season will take place on Tuesday in Houston when Kansas State and LSU meet in the TaxAct Texas Bowl. The Wildcats (7-5) from the Big 12 are looking to end their season on a winning note after dropping the last two games while the Tigers (6-6) from the SEC had to win two in a row to even be eligible for this contest.
Kansas State enters this game on the heels of tough losses to eventual Big 12 champion Baylor at home and Texas on the road. Despite holding these teams to a combined 42 points, KSU lost both in part to going a combined 5-for-22 on third down (and 1-of-4 on fourth down) in the two games. Despite these setbacks, the Wildcats are still in a bowl game for the second time in three seasons under head coach Chris Klieman, who replaced the legendary Bill Snyder after the 2018 season. Kansas State went 4-6 in the 2020 campaign that was shortened and heavily impacted by the pandemic.
Meanwhile, LSU's struggles this season have been well documented and resulted in the school parting ways with head coach Ed Orgeron, less than two years since leading the Tigers to a national championship. Brian Kelly, the winningest head coach in Notre Dame history, was hired as Orgeron's replacement but Brad Davis, who will serve as offensive line coach on Kelly's staff, will lead the team in the Texas Bowl.
LSU is only in this game after beating ULM and Texas A&M to finish the regular season, narrowly avoiding the program's first losing campaign since 1999. It's the second straight .500 finish (5-5 in 2020) after steamrolling everyone in 2019 on the way to a 15-0 record and the national title. It will mark the 21st time in 22 years that the Tigers are playing in a bowl game.
This is the second meeting between these teams with LSU winning the only previous encounter, 21-0 in 1980 in Baton Rouge.
TaxAct Texas Bowl: Kansas State (7-5) vs. LSU (6-6)
Kickoff: Tuesday, Jan. 4 at 9 p.m. ET
Where: NRG Stadium (Houston)
Spread: Kansas State -4.5
When Kansas State Has the Ball
Quarterback Skylar Thompson left the Nov. 20 home finale loss to Baylor with an ankle injury that caused him also to miss the game at Texas. Injuries have plagued the signal-caller throughout his Wildcats career, as he missed two other games earlier this season because of a knee injury. The good news is that Thompson appears healthy entering this game, which will be the 40th and final start of his K-State career. This season, he has completed 141 of 205 passing attempts for 1,844 yards with nine touchdowns and four interceptions and he's scored four times on the ground as well.
But Wildcats' offense doesn't funnel through the quarterback, it flows through running back Deuce Vaughn. A consensus All-American this season, Vaughn rankings in the top 10 nationally in all-purpose yards (144.1 per game) and total touchdowns (18). As a rusher, he gained 1,246 yards with 15 scores on the ground during the regular season, but he's just as big a threat as a receiver out of the backfield. His 47 receptions rank him fight in the FBS among his peers while his 471 yards off of them are second, according to the school.
With Vaughn doing most of the heavy lifting, K-State doesn't rank among the most prolific offenses in the Big 12. In fact, the Wildcats finished the regular season ninth among conference peers in both yards (355.3) and eighth in points (26.3) per game.
But success may be had against an LSU defense that looks dramatically different from the one that started this season. A combination of injuries, transfers, opt-outs, and academics have decimated the Tigers' roster. On defense, neither of the team's leading tacklers, linebackers Damone Clark (opted out) or Micah Baskerville (not listed on the depth chart), are playing, so a pair of underclassmen (Mike Jones Jr. and Greg Penn III) are expected to man those spots. Up front, the Tigers will have sacks leader B.J. Ojulari (six) and defensive tackles Maason Smith and Jaquelin Roy (combined 5.5 sacks, 11 tackles for a loss) but otherwise, it's a pretty depleted depth chart. And don't forget this is a unit that struggled even when the roster was complete. LSU enters this game ranked ninth in the SEC in both total (372.2 ypg) and scoring (25.3 ppg) defense.
When LSU Has the Ball
Similar to the defense, the Tigers' offense is pretty much a makeshift unit at this point. Take quarterback, for example. At the end of spring practice, LSU had four scholarship signal-callers on the roster — Myles Brennan, Max Johnson, T.J Finley, and Grant Nussmeier. Barring a last-minute change of heart, none of those will be playing in the bowl game.
Brennan was expected to be the starter, but he broke his arm in August and hasn't even practiced since then. He entered the transfer portal, but changed his mind shortly after and will stay at LSU. Finley bolted for Auburn before fall camp, leaving Johnson and Nussmeier. Johnson seized the starting job and posted decent numbers, finishing in the top five in the SEC in both passing yards (2,814) and touchdowns (27), but he has transferred to Texas A&M. Nussmeier would have been next man up, but since he had already played in four games, the school requested a waiver from the NCAA so he wouldn't lose his redshirt should he play. The waiver was denied and reportedly, Nussmeier will not suit up, although he is listed atop the depth chart.
That leaves walk-ons Tavion Faulk and Matt O'Dowd as the available quarterbacks, although wide receiver Jontre Kirkland could be used as a Wildcat quarterback after playing the position in high school. None of these players has recorded a rushing or passing attempt this season.
On top of the gigantic question mark at quarterback, the Tigers won't have their leading rusher, as Tyrion Davis-Price (1,003 yds., 6 TDs) declared for the NFL draft. Freshman Corey Kiner (270 yds., 2 TDs) should lead the backfield. The top targets figure to be wide receiver Jaray Jenkins, who caught the game-winning touchdown pass against Texas A&M to make LSU bowl eligible, and tight end Jack Bech, who leads the team with 43 receptions.
Kansas State should have the edge on defense, especially given the Tigers' inexperience at quarterback. The Wildcats held teams to just 3.6 yards per rushing attempt in the regular season, while only surrendering 12 touchdown passes (with nine interceptions). The player to watch on this side of the ball is defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah. The Big 12's co-Defensive Lineman of the Year, Anudike-Uzomah leads the country in forced fumbles per game (six total) and is tied for 10th with 11 sacks.
Despite having won the national championship just two years ago, hardly any players and coaches remain from that historically outstanding squad. The Tigers will have about 40 scholarship players available for the Texas Bowl and the coaching staff is a makeshift crew of shorts as well.
It's certainly worth asking, does LSU even care about this game? The only notable motivation is that that the Tigers need a win to avoid their first losing season since 1999 (3-8), which was Gerry DiNardo's last before giving way to Nick Saban.
Meanwhile, Kansas State is trying to avoid a three-game losing streak to finish this campaign and win its first bowl game since the Cactus Bowl in 2017 (only other postseason appearance since was a loss in the 2019 Liberty Bowl).
It's hard to see LSU's mishmash roster gel under these circumstances with everyone completely focused on Brian Kelly taking over the program. In fact, it will be interesting to see how many Tiger fans simply show up for this game in NRG Stadium. The Wildcats have more to play for, including Skylar Thompson wanting to end his K-State career with one last victory.
Prediction: Kansas State 23, LSU 6
Podcast: Fallout from the CFB Playoff & NY6 Games + Appreciation for Michigan and Cincinnati & Future of Playoff Expansion
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.