Toby’s Take: Why K-State is a dark horse for the College Football Playoff

Running back Deuce Vaughn and the Wildcats celebrate together on the field after winning the Big 12 Championship. K-State beat TCU 31-28 in overtime to at AT&T Stadium on Dec. 3, 2022. (Macey Franko | Collegian Media Group)

In 2022, confetti filled the air at AT&T Stadium as Kansas State football earned the Big 12 title over undefeated TCU and landed a spot in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama. The accomplishment was tremendous, but it is not the ceiling for K-State in 2023-24.

The Wildcats are not expected to repeat as conference champions. Major sportsbooks have Texas pegged as the favorite in the Big 12. PFF even has the Wildcats ranked fourth in the conference. 

A substantial amount of NFL talent departing from the program this offseason, headlined by 2022 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Felix Anudike-Uzomah and two-time consensus All-American Deuce Vaughn, lowered K-State’s bar. The secondary also took a hit losing defensive backs Julius Brents, Ekow Boye-Doe and Josh Hayes.

The Longhorns also lost immense talent like Bijan Robinson, the highest-drafted running back since 2018. However, it remains the favorite to win the conference and hold the fifth-best odds to make the College Football Playoff, per Fanduel.

The reasoning behind Texas’ hype is largely focused on its returning quarterback and offensive line. This storyline for K-State is eerily similar — so why can’t the Wildcats have the same ceiling?

Will Howard has the opportunity to lead the Wildcats once again — this time for a full season. Despite appearing in two fewer games as the primary passer, Howard outperformed Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers by throwing the same amount of touchdowns on fewer interceptions and recording a total quarterback ranking of 82.5 compared to Ewers’ 64.8.

As for the self-proclaimed “The Beef” K-State offensive line, all five starters from last year’s squad will return. This includes All-American guard Cooper Beebe who hasn’t allowed a sack since 2021 and owns the highest pass-blocking grade in the country during that time, per PFF. Senior guard Taylor Poitier will return as well, following a season-ending injury in last year’s opener. 

Running behind “The Beef” in replacement of Vaughn will be a dangerous duo of transfer Treshaun Ward and sophomore DJ Giddens. Ward holds PFF’s second-highest-rated 2022 score among all Big 12 running backs this season and will fit right into the scheme used for Vaughn.

“As far as running backs go, you know, I am a little guy as well,” Ward said. “After seeing what Deuce did last year, I wanted to get into an offense that is similar to my game.” 

Giddens averaged 5.8 yards per carry and was named Honorable Mention Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year, despite sitting behind the All-American. 

Doubt could exist in K-State’s secondary after losing so much talent. However, K-State has a track record of turning under-the-radar guys into legitimate starters. 

In the last two seasons, K-State turned three transfers into NFL defensive backs. Safety Kobe Savage could be the next and should headline the defensive backs this season. 

After transferring from Tyler Junior College, Savage started the first 10 games for the Wildcats. Injury cut his season short, but Savage still received All-Big 12 Second Team honors and tied for fourth on the team with 58 tackles.

Alongside Savage, a couple of guys that could take the next step are sophomores Jacob Parrish and Darell Jones. As a true freshman, Parrish set his career-high of four tackles in the Big 12 Championship game. Jones on the other hand hasn’t seen game action, but he is one of the most athletic members of the secondary.

The linebacking unit will return its stars — Daniel Green and Austin Moore — along with Khalid Duke helping in the pass rush. Defensive ends Brendan Mott and Nate Matlack played in every game last season and will lead the charge in filling Anudike-Uzomah’s role. 

Lastly, K-State’s coaching provides an advantage over Texas and other favorites for the playoff. Head coach Chris Klieman’s championships go beyond his Big 12 title. In five seasons at North Dakota State, Klieman won four national championships. 

247sports has Klieman rated as the seventh-best head coach across college football, just behind the likes of premier head coaches like Jim Harbaugh and Dabo Swinney. No other Big 12 coach is listed in the top 10, and Klieman is the highest-rated coach without a playoff appearance.

That can change this season. The opportunity for a playoff-caliber season exists in Manhattan — and it’s not one to be taken lightly.