Kansas State football coach Bill Snyder enters every bowl season with two goals.
First, he wants to prepare the Wildcats for their postseason game. Second, he wants to begin building toward the future.
This time around, they were equal goals.
Though the Texas Bowl was the end of an era for some K-State players, it was a transitional game for most. The future appears bright for the Wildcats, win or lose.
K-State went 8-4 — or “two plays away” from 10-2 as Snyder puts it, referencing narrow losses to Oklahoma State and West Virginia — during the regular season with a young roster that featured seven seniors as full-time starters. The strongest nucleus in years returns in 2017.
The Wildcats are sure to miss Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Jordan Willis next season. Charmeachealle Moore and Dante Barnett will also be difficult to replace. But the core of this team is coming back for more.
Especially on offense.
There shouldn’t be many question marks when K-State has the ball next season. Quarterback Jesse Ertz will be back as a senior, running backs Justin Silmon and Alex Barnes will be a year older, the offensive line returns four starters and only Deante Burton will leave the receiving corps.
The Wildcats tend to have their best seasons (10-plus victories) when Snyder has a quarterback he trusts. He will have exactly that with Ertz, who amassed 2,505 yards of total offense and scored 18 touchdowns in the regular season.
Many think he is capable of Collin Klein/Jake Waters-type improvement, particularly as he will be surrounded by proven skill players.
“We get two more years with this whole young class,” K-State right tackle Dalton Risner said before Wednesday’s game. “The great thing about having a great class is once we get to be juniors, we have this whole group coming back. (The Texas Bowl) would be a little bit different if we were all seniors, but we are bringing everyone back on offense.
“We are going to be firing on all cylinders next year. On defense, we are losing some key guys, but I know guys are going to step up and do a good job. I am excited about next year already.”
K-State emerged as a dominant running team in 2016, averaging more than 290 rushing yards while finishing the regular season 5-1. That shouldn’t change in 2017.
Ertz can really open the offense if he learns how to complete the deep ball. That is the main element lacking from his game. He struggled with vertical throws as a junior, and K-State’s receivers were rarely deep threats. Byron Pringle led the team with 524 receiving yards.
It shouldn’t be hard to improve on those numbers.
There may be some questions on defense, though.
Willis was K-State’s best defensive player since Arthur Brown, making 11 1/2 sacks and constantly harassing quarterbacks. Reggie Walker (6 1/2 sacks) and Tanner Wood (two sacks) are quality replacement options, but it’s unlikely either player will fully fill the void up front.
Playing alongside defensive tackle Will Geary and in front of linebacker linebacker Elijah Lee, the team’s leading tackler, K-State figures to once again be strong against the run.
Can it also improve against the pass?
K-State produced some interesting defensive numbers this season. Their strong front seven held teams to 112 rushing yards, allowing the Wildcats to lead the Big 12 in total defense (382.2 yards) and scoring defense (21.8). But those stats were skewed by a nonconference schedule that featured 2 1/2 games against woeful offenses from Stanford, Florida Atlantic and Missouri State.
The Wildcats were gashed by the pass in league games, allowing a Big 12-worst 323.9 yards through the air. Their strong run defense was occasionally rendered irrelevant in a pass-happy conference.
Defensive backs D.J. Reed, Duke Shelley and Kendall Adams all had their moments and return in hopes of strengthening the secondary, but K-State will need to replace Donnie Starks and Barnett.
That could be a big factor next season. Even with an improved offense, the Wildcats would benefit from improved coverage.
K-State will be tested early next season with a nonconference game at Vanderbilt, but a victory would set the team up for Big 12 success. The Wildcats will play five conference games at home next season, including a Manhattan showdown with defending conference champion Oklahoma.
The Big 12 was top heavy this season, with four teams finishing the regular season above .500. K-State was picked to finish eighth and ended up in fourth. Next season, it will likely be picked to finish third or fourth, but internal expectations will once again be higher.
With a young core leading the way, K-State should contend for a Big 12 championship.
Snyder geared bowl practices with that thought in mind.
“Winning your bowl game is better (than losing), everyone thinks that way,” Snyder said. “It probably makes it a little bit easier to get started in the out-of-season program. By the same token, at the end of the day, each year is a little different. Dynamics are different all the time. We have got a lot of players coming back. They will do fine either way.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett