Ben Leber was not surprised when Kansas State was slotted seventh in the Big 12’s preseason media poll. As a former Wildcats linebacker turned college football analyst, he is used to seeing his alma mater picked to finish near of the bottom of the conference race.
Often undeservedly so.
With 27 conference victories since 2011, K-State has won more Big 12 games than any other team in the league, topping Baylor and Oklahoma, which both have won 26. Yet it has not been picked to finish better than third in any of those years.
In 2011, the Wildcats were picked eighth and finished second. In 2012, they were picked sixth and won the conference. In 2013, they were picked sixth and finished fifth. They have a track record for defying expectations.
“It is always tough to look at any Bill Snyder team on paper and say, ‘No chance,’” Leber said. “They continue to prove everyone wrong. This year, though, I am kind of believing the negativity.
“There is not a whole lot on offense. So much is unproven. When you don’t have an experienced quarterback and you don’t have any receivers to throw the ball to and the running game somewhat returns but was not productive last year. It is hard.
“It is going to be the defense that keeps them in games, and even that is thin with six guys coming back and all new linebackers. I think there are a lot of question marks and they are deservedly not being picked to finish very high in the Big 12.”
Deserved or not, K-State players are not putting much stock in the preseason polls. Gone are Jake Waters, Tyler Lockett, Curry Sexton, B.J. Finney, Jonathan Truman, Ryan Mueller and many of the playmakers that made last year’s team go. Still, as you might expect, the Wildcats are more bullish on their team than outsiders.
They always are.
“Ever since I have been playing here we have been picked No. 5, No. 6 or No. 7,” senior left tackle Cody Whitehair said. “It is just a number. I think if you come in day by day and you work like you are the 10th team in the conference and have that little chip on your shoulder, I think it will help you become a better player.”
When asked about the Big 12’s preseason poll, Snyder mostly shrugged.
If he had a vote, he said he would likely slot TCU and Baylor at the top and follow with a grouping of teams that probably looks a lot like what the media’s poll. But he is glad he does not have a vote, because he understands it would be meaningless.
“If you print TCU and Baylor are the two teams to beat, I can’t disagree with you,” Snyder said. “But you have to be careful taking something for granted. I like the balance in our conference. By and large there is great strength in our conference, a lot of teams that can be very effective. I hate to count teams out.
“Strange things happen. You look back at the preseason voters and more miss than get it right. It is guess work. I think anybody can get anybody on any given day. I have seen it happen too many times. Everybody has a chance.”
That could be Snyder’s mantra going into each season or, heck, each game.
His players certainly have learned to embrace that approach. In some ways, the Wildcats would love to get the benefit of the doubt in preseason polls, and maybe even be labeled the favorites. But there is also an advantage to be gained from being the underdog.
By now, the Wildcats have learned to use it.
“Coach loves to be an underdog,” Whitehair said. “Anytime you go in as an underdog you have got nothing to lose. You have got no pride to lose. Why not just go out and play, play the game you love and have fun. That is what we bank a lot of our seasons on, and I think that is why we have been successful.”