Opponent: Kansas State Wildcats
Date: September 19, 2020
All-time series record: Vanderbilt leads, 2-0
Last meeting: September 16, 2017; Vanderbilt won, 14-7
Last year: 8-5, 46th in SP+
Head coach: Chris Klieman (8-5, 1 year; 80-18 overall, 7 years)
We move on to Vanderbilt’s third opponent of the season, Kansas State, the second Big 12 opponent in a row that the Commodores will face in September. (Har! You knew I couldn’t resist that one.)
Following a legend is never easy, but Kansas State’s transition from longtime head coach Bill Snyder to Chris Klieman couldn’t have been more seamless. After going 5-7 in Snyder’s final season, Kansas State bounced back to go 8-5 in Klieman’s first. The defense was frequently excellent, allowing just 21.4 ppg, good for 27th nationally (and second-best in the offense-happy Big 12), but the real key was an offense that went from an awful 111th nationally to a respectable 61st. That still wasn’t great, and in terms of yards per play the improvement was only marginal (5.2 to 5.6), but it was enough when paired with that defense.
That offense will have to retool a bit in 2020. Quarterback Skylar Thompson returns, but it looks like he’ll be behind a brand-new offensive line: just going off the starting offensive line from the Wildcats’ bowl game, Kansas State graduated all five starters on the offensive line. Also gone are the team’s top two running backs and its leading receiver. Kansas State’s second- and third-leading receivers were both redshirt freshmen last year; still, this is a lot to replace on a unit that was decent but hardly great.
The defense — easily the better unit in 2019 — is a bit of a different story. Three starters are gone off the defensive line, but the one returning is the star: 6’3”, 258-pound junior defensive end Wyatt Hubert. Hubert had a team-leading 7 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss in 2019. Also back is the team’s leading tackler, linebacker Elijah Sullivan, and the team leader in interceptions with 3, defensive back AJ Parker. In total, Kansas State returns just five starters on defense, however.
The 2020 team, then, will probably be a better test of Klieman’s ability to sustain what Bill Snyder built. Klieman was previously the coach at FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, where he won four national championships in five years, and there he simply maintained what Craig Bohl built before bolting for Wyoming — North Dakota State was already on a run of three straight national titles before Klieman took over. And now we get to see whether he can do it again at Kansas State, though he took over the program at a considerably lower point.
For Vanderbilt, then, getting Kansas State early on is probably better than later in the season what with all the retooling the Wildcats will have to do — Kansas State’s Week 3 matchup against the Commodores is preceded by games against Buffalo and North Dakota. Vanderbilt has won both of its two previous matchups with the Wildcats, in 1984 and 2017, though 2020’s matchup will mark the first time Vanderbilt will travel to Manhattan, and only the second game Vanderbilt has ever played in the state of Kansas (the only previous one was a 1985 game at Kansas.)