Life On the Margins: The strange case of Kansas State, unbeaten underdog at the turn

Dr. Saturday

At midseason, there are ten undefeated teams remaining in college football, and it would be more than a stretch to classify any of the top eight as a "surprise": Between them, Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Boise State, Stanford, Wisconsin and Clemson have been favored to win all but two games this season, and so they have in mostly dominant fashion. So has 6-0 Houston, further down the polls. Those nine have won their first 51 games by an average of more than 25 points. Then there's Kansas State, which has pulled four consecutive upsets in as many weeks and fits about as well with its unbeaten peers as a hybrid at a hot-rod show.

Even as upstarts, the Wildcats are weird. Opponents have mocked their pace on offense and their insistence on 20th Century relics such as a huddle. At 6-0, they're currently ranked dead last in the Big 12 in passing and total offense, and next-to-last in pass efficiency and scoring. They don't lead the Big 12 or rank among the top 10 nationally in any major statistical category; they rank in the top 20 in just one, rushing defense. They're giving up more yards than they gain on average, joining Auburn as the only ranked teams that yield more than they earn on either front. And it's not just an "on average" quirk: Over the last four games, K-State has been outgunned in both total yards and yards per play in all four games. And won them all.

How does an otherwise ordinary-looking outfit that seems to be consistently outplayed on a down-by-down basis mange to consistently come out on top? They only three ways it can:

Touchdowns in the red zone, not field goals. In fact, the Wildcats score touchdowns only in the red zone: K-State hasn't hit paydirt from more than 20 yards out on offense since its first TD of the season, a 33-yard, go-ahead touchdown pass in the final two minutes of an eventual 10-7 win over Eastern Kentucky. Since then, the Wildcats have scored on 25 of 27 trips inside the twenty, including all 18 of their subsequent touchdowns.

Combined with one of the best red zone defenses in the country — see the last-second goal line stand to preserve the win over Miami — they've outscored their last four opponents by 17 points per game on those opportunities. On the same opportunistic note…

Bend, don't break. The dramatic ending to preserve the win in Miami is the highlight of the year, but it was only one of a dozen times in the last four games opposing offenses have crossed midfield and come away without so much as a field goal to show for it. Including drives that ended in a field goal, teams have been slightly less likely to reach the end zone after entering Wildcat territory than they are to get there.{YSP:MORE}

Punting is winning. No offense has been stingier with the ball: Since coughing up five giveaways against EKU, K-State has turned it over just twice in the last five, compared to eleven takeaways. Against Baylor, a late interception off the otherwise dominant Robert Griffin III set up the game-winning field goal in the fourth quarter; a week later, another pick set up a short field for the Wildcats' first touchdown against Missouri.

Last week against Texas Tech, Nigel Malone took an interception back for the first touchdown of the afternoon on the Red Raiders' third snap, and Tysyn Hartman set up the last with Kansas State's third INT in the fourth quarter. Along with a kickoff return by Tyler Lockett for another score, K-State put three touchdowns on the board in a 41-34 win with minimal contributions from the offense.

That's not worth much on paper, until you get to the standings, where the Wildcats are right alongside Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in the Big 12 lead. They're almost certainly still going to be there after this weekend, when they're finally favored to win for a change — and secure a winning season in the process — at hapless Kansas. Which brings us to the $27.2 million question: Just how long can they keep winning without being demonstrably good in any particular phase?

Presumably, that question and all others we haven't even contemplated yet will be answered the following Saturday, on Oct. 29, when Oklahoma comes in to initiate a four-game stretch — against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Texas — that is universally expected to disperse any pretensions K-State has toward a Big 12 title across the prairie in fine granules too small to be detected by the human eye. With the exception of the suddenly struggling Longhorns, there's no obvious reason to expect anything else: A scrappy, turnover-driven M.O. tends to fare a lot better against the rest of the middle class than it does against the heavyweight division, which tends to be pretty good at forcing turnovers and red zone defense itself. At some point, the Wildcats' marginal secondary and total lack of explosiveness on offense will catch up with them, probably in gruesome fashion, and probably not for the last time.

With just one more upset in that stretch, though — assuming wins over Kansas this weekend and Iowa State in the season finale — they'll be back at nine wins for the first time since 2003, their same year Kansas State won its first conference title since 1934 and the last time it was even close to the national radar. A second or third-tier bowl game could offer a shot at No. 10. In the old North-South divisional format, the Wildcats would be looking like the tentative favorites to go on to the Big 12 Championship Game, and gosh, who knows what might happen from there? As it stands, by hook, crook or dumb luck, they're on the cusp of fulfilling Bill Snyder's re-rebuilding mission after the regression (and ridiculousness) of the Ron Prince years. If it's not exactly the minor miracle the first turnaround was, it may be good enough to declare "mission accomplished."

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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