For the first time since 2010, K-State opens the season facing an opponent from a Power 5 conference. The opponent in 2010 was another Pac-12 - then Pac-10 - outfit, and K-State defeated the UCLA Bruins in Manhattan, 31-22.
K-State travels to Palo Alto this time to face the Stanford Cardinal. Unlike the 2010 Bruins, who had won only 17 games the previous three seasons, the 2016 Cardinal are 31-10 in their last three campaigns. Last year, Stanford won the Pac-12 and annihilated previously once-beaten Iowa in the Rose Bowl.
Stanford sports last year's Heisman runner up, Christian McCaffrey, who led the team in rushing and receiving a year ago. K-State must keep McCaffrey in check, or this one could get away from the Wildcats early. A deeper look at the matchup is below.
Player to Watch (2015 stats)
Passing: Jesse Ertz: 0-0-0, 0 yards, 0 TD, 0 yards/game
Rushing: Charles Jones, 142 carries, 696 yards, 4.9 yards/carry, 5 TD, 53.5 yards/game
Receiving: Deante Burton, 38 receptions, 510 yards, 13.4 yards/reception, 4 TDs, 39.2 yards/game
Passing: Ryan Burns, 0-0-0, 0 yards, 0 TD, 0 yards/game
Rushing: Christian McCaffrey, 337 carries, 2,019 yards, 6.0 yards/carry, 8 TDs, 144.2 yards/game
Receiving: Christian McCaffrey, 45 receptions, 645 yards, 14.3 yards/reception, 5 TDs, 46.1 yards/game
We'll probably also see Keller Chryst at quarterback for Stanford. He compiled a 5-9-0 line for 59 yards and one touchdown last season. Keep an eye on Trent Irwin at wide receiver.
Defensively, K-State's starters are as good as we've seen in a while in Manhattan. Will Geary and Jordan Willis anchor the defensive line, and Elijah Lee led the team in tackles last season from his linebacker spot. All-conference safety Dante Barnett returns from injury and talented sophomore Duke Shelley gets the nod at cornerback. Other returning starters include Kendall Adams at safety and Donnie Starks at nickle. It will be interesting to see if K-State remains in its base 4-2-5 most of the time against a Stanford offense that isn't what we typically see in the Big 12.
Standout defensive lineman Soloman Thomas leads the way for Stanford, but four of the top six line contributors from last season are gone. If that gets your hope up, temper that with the knowledge that the Cardinal's linebacking corps is potentially excellent. Peter Kalambayi, Joey Alfieri and Mike Tyler combined for 86.5 tackles and 19 tackles for loss.
While Stanford was only average defensively last year, it returns everyone in the secondary and adds Zach Hoffpauir. The group combined for 144 tackles, but only five interceptions, in 2015.
Stanford figures to regress somewhat on offense without Kevin Hogan at quarterback and three new starters on the offensive line. But David Shaw gets the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise, and of course McCaffrey is still in town. Meanwhile, the Cardinal defensive line may be a bit of a question mark. But the linebackers and secondary project somewhere between above-average and really good.
Let's just forget those 2015 numbers ever happened for K-State and pretend it was all due to injury, shall we? Good.
Over the last week, I've caught myself thinking about certain individual matchups and thinking that K-State has a decent chance to win. But let's take off the purple glasses and put down the Kool-Aid for a minute. K-State's 2015 season was probably an injury-fueled aberration. And yeah, Stanford has some questions here or there. But the last time these two teams took the field, K-State lost by three touchdowns to Arkansas, while Stanford beat Iowa by four touchdowns. The Cardinal are favored by two touchdowns for a reason.
This looks like a low-scoring grinder to me. K-State's green offensive line probably can't take advantage of Stanford's line, which looks like its biggest defensive weakness. Jesse Ertz has zero track record in live game action, and the most exciting weapons on offense are largely unproven.
Stanford isn't afraid to shorten the game itself, and K-State's defense should hold its own against the Cardinal. McCaffrey is terrifying for a number of reasons, but the Wildcats' defense prides itself on limiting big plays and taking away the opponents' best weapon. If the line holds the point of attack and Lee and Barnett keep McCaffrey in check, this could be a low-scoring affair to the end.
What are we looking for from this game? On offense, I want to see Ertz control the offense, make good decisions both passing and running, and throw the ball accurately. I want to see the new offensive line hold its own against a 3-4 defense that won't look like what K-State sees in Big 12 play. And I'd like to see Byron Pringle or Dominique Heath make a big play in the passing game.
On defense, some pundits optimistically project K-State's defensive line among the best 15 units in the country. If that's the case, then the Wildcats need to win at the point of attack and Willis needs to get consistent pressure on Burns. Lee has shown good range at linebacker, but he also needs to be ready to take on Stanford's power. And as a unit, can the Wildcats force Stanford to complete passes in tight windows, catch passes facing the line of scrimmage, and then rally to the ball to limit yards after catch?
Those items have been features of K-State football since 2011, until last year. Stanford is simply a better program right now and is playing at home, but K-State needs to show progress from the aimless drift of last year's October and early November.
Cardinal 24, Wildcats 14