MANHATTAN, Kan. — Kansas State has earned an unflattering reputation under coach Bill Snyder for its non-conference scheduling of weaker opponents from schools that often have a direction in their names.
The Wildcats went to the extreme opposite this season.
Kansas State opens up against No. 8 Stanford on Friday night, a marquee matchup against the Rose Bowl champions and star Christian McCaffrey on national TV kicking off the slate of weekend games.
It will be the first time since 2001 that the Wildcats open the season on the West Coast — back then it was the Southern California juggernaut under Pete Carroll — and the first time they will face a ranked opponent in their opener since Auburn in 2007 under former coach Ron Prince.
“I tell everybody this is a game like any other game,” Kansas State linebacker Mike Moore said. “They’re a highly ranked team and this can propel our season, but if we do our job and do what the coaches tell us, we can have a great game.”
The Wildcats, plagued by injuries during a 6-7 finish a year ago, tend to open at home or against lower-level opponents. The idea is to ease into the season, build some confidence and give younger players deep down the depth chart a chance to see the field before the Big 12 Conference grind.
But the league has encouraged teams to schedule tougher non-conference games in the hopes of boosting its chances of landing a team in the playoff. As a result, the Wildcats face Stanford, Oklahoma takes on No. 15 Houston and Texas hosts 10th-ranked Notre Dame.
Those teams are a far cry from South Dakota, the Wildcats’ opener a year ago. Or Stephen F. Austin, their punching bag to kick off the 2014 season.
“It’s a challenge, (but) I don’t relate that to necessarily what it means to our program,” Snyder said. “I think it’s a great opportunity in regards to this set of young people. I have great respect for Stanford and we all know where they are in the rankings, certainly well deserved. It’s obviously a challenge but it’s an excellent opportunity for the young people here.”
Snyder said there is no greater sense of urgency playing a marquee brand such as Stanford in Week 1, even if his players may feel differently. Every game carries the same weight to him
“I think coaches have that same sense of urgency regardless of who you’re playing,” he said. “You can say you’d want your players to as well and I do, but it ought to be at the heightened level regardless of who they’re playing. That may be the case but I can’t assure you that it always is. Maybe it is for some right now in different circumstances.”
A softer opening might have been especially beneficial this season with Kansas State quarterback Jesse Ertz and safety Dante Barnett returning from season-ending injuries.
Ertz was announced as the starter on Monday, completing his comeback from a torn ACL that he sustained in the first game last season. He will try to turn around an offense that was ninth in the Big 12 in passing offense a year ago, and shuffled through so many different faces under center that wide receiver Kody Cook was eventually pressed into duty.
Barnett will be relied upon just as much on defense, where the senior will try to direct a group that allowed more than 450 yards and 31.5 points per game last season.
“We are going on the road and playing one of the Heisman finalists from last year,” he said. “We are also playing one of the top-10 teams in the country, so I cannot wait for the atmosphere.”