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Meet Kansas State, which looks a lot different than it did during the regular season

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 25 Iowa State at Kansas State Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

NC State and Kansas State meet Thursday on the [you have to imagine this next part in the NFL Films guy voice] naturally thawed turf of Camping World Stadium. NC State and K-State have never met in Orlando, or indeed anywhere, for football-related festivities.

They’ve picked a fine time to come together, as there is a large edible Pop-Tarts mascot on the line. Not that either team lacks for motivation, but to be the first to go down in the history books taking a bite out of a Pop-Tarts mascot? That’s huge. That’s a huge deal right there.

No judgment, either. Even if it has eyes. Even if it has sad-looking dead eyes. Man I don’t know about this. I’m not sure I can be on board with this. The flavoring is its blood! It needs the flavoring to live! You maniacs! It needs the flavoring to live!

...

Right, what was I talking about? Ahem.

Kansas State spent basically the entire 2023 season as an underrated team—two very difficult road games early (Mizzou, Oklahoma State) resulted in losses, and from there the Wildcats were forgotten. But seven of their eight wins came by multiple scores—including a 29-point win over 11-win Troy—and they rallied from multiple scores down in the second half at Texas to force overtime before ultimately losing. This is a very good team***.

(***The snowy finale against Iowa State aside. I only bring this up because the stats are wild. Iowa State, which won 42-35, ran just 35 plays. The Cyclones racked up 488 yards of offense on those 35 plays, an average of nearly 14 per. K-State ran up 497 yards on 102 plays. Five of ISU’s touchdowns went for 60 yards or more.)

Kansas State was not a lot of plays from being in a much different position heading into December, and I can’t imagine that letdown against Iowa State to close out the year left anyone in a good mood.

But the Wildcats are going to have to overcome some critical transfers and opt-outs in the bowl game: starting quarterback Will Howard, backup running back Treshaun Ward, its top two receivers, and half its starting secondary.

Howard’s departure opened the door for freshman Avery Johnson, who is an electric runner but unproven passer; he’ll have leading rusher DJ Giddens (1075 yards on 5.5 per carry) to work with. And yeah, he’s down a couple receivers, but he’s also working behind what might be the most experienced offensive line in the country: 228 games played, including 169 starts. Left guard Cooper Beebe is a first-team All-American.

This is a fascinating matchup for the unknown parts of it; Johnson is a great athlete, a difference-making runner, and so far a pretty good passer—and he’s also played zero high-leverage snaps.

He’ll be missing the team’s top two pass-catchers, guys who accounted for 102 of the team’s 244 receptions on the year. Another 28 of those grabs belong to Giddens. This isn’t a deep or experienced receiving corps (watch out for Jayce Brown tho), but I’m sure they’ll figure out how to best leverage running the ball behind a line that has roughly 400 years of experience.

Should be fun.