PREVIEW: Wildcats kick off 2021 football season against difficult Stanford opponent

Wide receiver Malik Knowles excites the crowd before a kick return in K-State's 31-21 victory over Texas Tech on Oct. 3, 2020 at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. (Archive photo by Dalton Wainscott | Collegian Media Group)

The Kansas State football team takes on the Stanford Cardinal in the 2021 season opener this Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. With kickoff set for 11 a.m., all eyes are on the Wildcats.

After starting the 2020 season with a promising 4-1 record, K-State looks to avenge the five-game losing streak that capped this past season with a 4-6 final record. The Wildcats start their campaign with a Pac-12 staple — Stanford.

The Cardinal come off of a 4-2 shortened-season record from this past year.

Stanford wasn’t the usual powerhouse team this past season, which will likely roll into this coming year. However, never count out historically good teams — those are typically the most sound programs, especially going into the first week.

A week ago, some thought this game might be the first of many matchups with the Cardinal. That was before rumors of a Pac-12 expansion were shot down, meaning the Wildcats won’t travel consistently to California any time soon. Saturday’s meeting is only the second contest between the two teams — the first being a 26-13 loss for K-State in 2016.

Head coach Chris Klieman comes into his third season at K-State with a 12-11 overall record since arriving in 2019. The record includes a 9-9 conference record and two wins over Oklahoma, locking Klieman in with a contract extension through 2026.

Star quarterback Skylar Thompson is back for the Wildcats, returning for a final season after the NCAA granted athletes an added year of eligibility because of COVID-19. Alongside other notable returning seniors, Thompson leads the offense with an exciting veteran mindset.

Transfers in the secondary

Between Iowa’s Julius Brents, Louisville’s Russ Yeast, Kennesaw State’s Cincere Mason and Prairie View A&M’s Reggie Stubblefield, the Wildcats have some strong incoming players in the secondary.

K-State worked with a relatively average passing defense this past season, coming up big and short in certain situations. However, pairing these incomers with the depth already at the position should improve the defensive attack. This could ring especially true against a Stanford team starting an inexperienced quarterback now that quarterback Davis Mills has graduated.

Keenan Garber’s usage

Keenan Garber was a big grab for K-State a couple of years ago. Now going into his third season, coaches and fans are excited to see how Garber can produce yardage this year. The fast and evasive athlete could end up a breakout player against Stanford if he gets behind defenses with the long ball or breaks tackles after jet sweeps.

Defensive line post-Wyatt Hubert

As Andy Bernard from “The Office” once said, “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.”

While the defensive line most likely isn’t headed into the dark ages, the Wildcats might have taken the talent of Wyatt Hubert for granted. One of the best underclassman pass rushers in school history, Hubert left big shoes to fill after leaving for the NFL draft earlier this year.

Still, returning players Bronson Massie and Khalid Duke can lead the way to a strong front seven, especially with the help of graduate transfer defensive tackle Timmy Horne.

Deuce Vaughn avoiding a sophomore slump

It doesn’t happen as much in college as it does in the NFL, but with extra time and film, coaches from opposing schools might find a way to figure out K-State’s star running back, Deuce Vaughn. However, word from the team shows this year will only be better for the breakout athlete.

After winning True Freshman of the Year by 247Sports this past season, the 5 foot 5 inch running back has a promising 2021 season ahead. With other solid weapons on the team and the return of Skylar Thompson, there is plenty for defenses to focus on during the game, giving Vaughn clearer looks this season.

The game will be live on FOX Sports 1 at 11 a.m. on Saturday. Follow up with the Collegian post-game for a recap and analysis on all of the action.