Kansas State went into the 2013 season with hopes of defending its Big 12 title. Those hopes quickly vanished after the Wildcats lost their first three Big 12 games.
But after a sizzling finish coupled with the return of several key performers, K-State opened spring ball this month with its eyes turned back to the Big 12 crown.
“I definitely think we have the confidence and talent to play with anyone,” quarterback Jake Waters said. “I’m not saying we’re going undefeated. But we can play with anyone in this league and anyone in the country. We’re going to have a chance to win every game.”
The Wildcats have good reason to feel confident about contending for the Big 12 title again.
They closed out last season winning six of their final seven games, including a 31-14 dismantling of Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
They also have a confident returning quarterback in Waters, who rapidly improved after transferring in from junior college. In fact, during that seven game stretch, Waters produced a better Adjusted Total QBR than All-Big 12 quarterback Bryce Petty while throwing for 14 touchdowns to just four interceptions (he threw four interceptions alone in K-State’s first two games against North Dakota State and Louisiana-Lafayette).
“My confidence is night and day from when I first got here and even maybe during the season,” said Waters, who eventually bumped Daniel Sams out of K-State’s two-quarterback system (Sams is playing receiver this spring). “Towards the end of the year, it started to click for me. The game started to slow down. I was able to see the coverages better and see the things I wanted to get to.”
Of course, Waters also benefited from having one of the best security blankets in all of college football in All-Big 12 wideout Tyler Lockett, who could be a preseason All-American going into his senior season.
Despite missing two games earlier in the season with injury, Lockett led the league in receiving yards per game (105.2). As Waters settled in, Lockett became almost uncoverable, hauling in 278 yards and three touchdowns in late November against Oklahoma before reeling in three first-half touchdown catches in the bowl game against Michigan.
“It’s pretty awesome for a quarterback to have a guy like him,” Waters said. “I’m confident he’s going to get open every single time. I know where he’s going to be, what he’s going to do, and that’s a big help. Me and him have a great connection.”
The Wildcats, however, won’t merely be a two-man show next season.
Veteran center BJ Finney and guard Cody Whitehair are All-Big 12-caliber offensive linemen. The Wildcats also inked one of the top-rated juco wideouts in the country in Andre Davis, who enrolled early and is participating in spring ball.
“He can fly,” Waters said of Davis. “That’s another weapon we need to be able to use.”
With the playmakers on both sides of the ball, Mueller said he sees likenesses this spring between the makeup of this team and the one that won the Big 12 title two years ago.
“I do see some similarities as far as talent level,” Mueller said of the 2012 Wildcats, who featured both conference players of the year in quarterback Collin Klein and linebacker Arthur Brown. “We have strong impact players. The teams are very similar that way, and we’re looking forward to showcasing that.”
These Wildcats still have obstacles to overcome before matching what those Wildcats accomplished.
K-State has no experienced running back to replace graduated three-year starter John Hubert, and coach Bill Snyder didn’t seem overly pleased with the position thus far while speaking with reporters Tuesday.
The Wildcats must also find a place in the offensive gameplan for Sams, who, outside of Lockett, is the team’s most explosive playmaker.
K-State will also be leaning heavily on several junior-college players, including defensive tackle Terrell Clinkscales and linebacker D'Vonta Derricott, who won’t be joining the team until the summer.
But the way they finished last season, the Wildcats have the same goal they did early last year.
And that’s to be a contender.
“We showed (late last year) what we’re capable of doing,” Mueller said. “We’re looking forward to doing bigger and better things in 2014.”