Kansas State: College football's quietest conference champ

Kansas State coach Chris Klieman raises the Big 12 championship trophy after defeating TCU 31-28 in overtime last season. Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports

MANHATTAN, Kan. -- It's a time of relentless change in college football. Schools flip leagues, players sprint to the portal and coaches change jobs at dizzying rates.

The only constant in college football is the cycle of incessant change, and that has only amplified in the past few years.

So with the Big 12 opening up the sport's 2023 media day circuit this week, it's nice to see in this volatile new era there are some familiar notions like Kansas State being outside of the sport's hype vortex.

With Kansas State returning 15 starters from a team that toppled TCU for the Big 12 title last year, the program's aspirations for the first back-to-back titles in school history hinge on an antiquated concept that's becoming a buzzy idea in this new era: Can continuity be a competitive advantage?

"Every year is usually Texas, Oklahoma or those type of guys," sixth-year linebacker Daniel Green said. "But I feel like coming to Kansas State, you kind of have a chip on your shoulder that you're always going to be overlooked."

Much like its location in rural Kansas, the heart of the case for Kansas State isn't mainstream. The case for Kansas State to repeat as Big 12 champion is rooted in consistency in a time of fluidity.

Predictably, the 10-4 record and slew of returning starters have been overlooked by the flashy talent at Texas. The Longhorns were voted atop the league by a country mile -- 41 first-place votes to 14 for second-place Kansas State.

Most would agree from a pure talent perspective Texas is the best outfit in the Big 12. But in a results-based business, Kansas State presents a compelling case because of its winning pedigree, seasoning and experience. Many need reminding that Texas' last league title came in 2009, which puts it in the longest league title drought in school history. The Wildcats are tied with the Longhorns with three total Big 12 titles since the league formed in 1996.

Among the 15 returning Kansas State starters is an offensive line that returns intact, both veteran and ornery, with six experienced starters who have combined for 119 career starts. The case for the Wildcats continues with nine total sixth-year seniors, a promising quarterback in Will Howard and a coach, Chris Klieman, who knows the recipe for championships after winning four as a head coach and seven total while on staff at North Dakota State.

"I learned quickly, if we're going to have success here you need three-year, four-year, fifth-year and sixth-year guys in your locker room," said Klieman, who is entering his fifth season at Kansas State. "It's why we had success at North Dakota State and why we had success this past year. You need guys who've been through the battles, know the expectations, know the standards and know how to hold each other accountable."

There's little doubt in suburban Dallas this week the potential of Kansas star Jalon Daniels, the arm talent of Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers and Oklahoma's hopes to reboot will dominate Big 12 conversation. (In fairness, the Longhorns also return their entire offensive line.) But the safest bet for the highest drafted Big 12 player this year is Cooper Beebe, Kansas State's star interior offensive lineman.

Beebe, a fifth-year senior, returned for another season despite first-round draft projections. He wanted to play with his brother, Camden, a Kansas State freshman offensive lineman. So instead of draft prep in a fancy resort town, it's fitting of Kansas State's workmanlike ethos that its best player was an American history student-teacher at nearby Rock Creek High School this spring, as he has earned a degree in social studies education. Not exactly the same as an NIL deal for a Lamborghini.

"I don't know if he'll ever get to that teaching phase," Klieman told ESPN with a chuckle earlier this spring, nodding to Beebe's NFL potential. "Carson [Wentz] had a teaching certificate at North Dakota State, and we laughed and said, 'You're never using that.'"

Howard, a true senior, thrived in Collin Klein's first season as offensive coordinator in 2022. He flashed star potential in seizing the starting quarterback job from Adrian Martinez last year and leading the Wildcats to a 48-0 win over Oklahoma State and the 31-28 overtime victory over TCU in the Big 12 title game.

With TCU still reaching the College Football Playoff after Kansas State beat the Horned Frogs in the Big 12 title game, the Wildcats' championship didn't get a ton of oxygen nationally. More air from the championship escaped after Kansas State's 45-20 Sugar Bowl loss to Alabama.

"We didn't finish like we wanted to," Howard told ESPN. "I don't think [what we accomplished] was overlooked by the Kansas State faithful. It was a huge deal, and we're excited to make that the new normal around Kansas State."

He added about the opportunity to measure up to Alabama: "It was nice to play a team like that. We're meant to be there. That's where our program is and where we want to be."

It's reasonable to say the Wildcats can go where Howard can take them after he threw 15 touchdowns and just four interceptions last year. Klieman watched Howard learn during the pandemic, when he was ushered into a starting role because of injury. He has seen his confidence grow as the game slowed for him, and his completion percentage jumped more than five percentage points to 59.8%. "I'm looking forward to the kid having a huge year," Klieman said.

Any mention of Kansas State improving on the dynamic 2022 season must include the acknowledgement that all-purpose dynamo Deuce Vaughn, a two-time consensus All-American, will not be easily replaced. Howard predicts a more downhill attack and more shots down the field as the identity shifts from Vaughn.

The Kansas State defense will miss first-round NFL draft pick Felix Anudike-Uzomah, an end who had 8.5 sacks last season. With only five starters returning on defense, there will be an identity shift on that side of the ball, too.

Kansas State defensive coordinator Joe Klanderman has built defenses that finished in the top 30 in scoring the past two years, and Green will be a focal point at linebacker.

Green missed one game and 10 weeks of practice last year because of a foot injury. He made honorable mention All-Big 12 but never thought he put the best version of himself on tape. So he has returned for a sixth year and is excited to see what he can do in Klanderman's system at full strength with all his experience.

"We know what we're going to see from guys in situational tendencies and just knowing the game and knowing what the offensive coordinator's going to give us," he said. "And we're out there playing faster than other teams because he prepares it so well."

If the defense can pick back up, the hype will follow. Around Manhattan, there's a confidence that belies the muted attention.

"We want to be the first team to go back-to-back in Kansas State history," Howard said. "That's the next level, that's where we want to go."