MANHATTAN, Kan. — High expectations are nothing new to Kansas State coach Chris Klieman, who for five consecutive years was expected to win the FCS national championship at North Dakota State and proceeded to deliver in four of them.
They aren’t quite as common for the Wildcats. Just last year, they were picked fifth in what was then a 10-team Big 12, and then stunned just about everyone but themselves by beating College Football Playoff-bound TCU in the conference title game.
So when No. 16 Kansas State was picked to finish second in a league that has expanded to 14 teams with the addition of UCF, Houston, BYU and Cincinnati, it left Klieman recalling his past with the Bison on how to manage those high expectations.
“You don’t shy away from it. You talk about it,” he said. “Yeah, the target is on our back. There’s expectations. But that’s why you came to Kansas State, to have high expectations and be the team to beat. That’s what we did in the past and it worked. That is what we want to do. We want to keep elevating what we’re doing at Kansas State.”
The Wildcats are picked so highly despite losing first-team All-American Deuce Vaughn from the backfield, first-round pick Felix Anudike-Uzomah from the defensive line and two other NFL draft picks from the secondary.
And that says a lot about what they have coming back: quarterback Will Howard, their entire offensive line and most of the rest of the defense.
It also says a lot about the guys brought in to fill some of those holes.
Florida State transfer Treshaun Ward could be the No. 1 running back by the season opener Sept. 2 against Southeast Missouri State. Iowa transfer Keagan Johnson could be the top wide receiver. In the secondary, North Dakota State transfer Marques Sigle could join returning Kobe Savage, now recovered from a season-ending injury, to form one of the league’s best safety tandems.
“The continuity is huge,” Klieman said, “especially on the offensive side. I think we’ve barely scratched the surface of what we can do offensively. I saw some innovation and some things in spring ball that they were able to do, and when you have someone like Will that is so smart, I think we can advance some of the things we’ve done.”
The Wildcats return offensive coordinator Collin Klein and defensive coordinator Joe Klanderman, and the fact that the same voices are calling the plays on both sides of the ball is significant.
Klein, who was a Heisman Trophy finalist for the Wildcats as a quarterback, turned down offseason interest from Notre Dame to be its offensive coordinator.
Klanderman scrapped the Wildcats’ defensive system before last season, implementing a 3-3-5 scheme that is better designed to stop the proliferation of read-option offenses in the league. The result was the Big 12’s third-best scoring defense.
WHERE THERE’S A WILL, THERE’S A WAY
Howard had appeared in 14 games over his first two seasons, and that experience paid off when Adrian Martinez was hurt a year ago. He stepped into the starting QB role and never gave it back, guiding the Wildcats to the Big 12 title and the Sugar Bowl.
The senior completed just 59% of his passes, but his 15-to-4 touchdown-to-interception rate over seven games was exceptional.
Right tackle Christian Duffie will miss the start of the year because of an injury sustained over the summer, but the Wildcats have plenty of depth along the offensive line.
Carver Willis has taken most of the reps this fall alongside fellow starters Hadley Panzer, KT Leveston, Hayden Gillum and Cooper Beebee, an All-American candidate and potential first-round draft pick.
SECOND CHANCE, FIRST IMPRESSION
There are hopes that Ward and Johnson can produce in the Kansas State offense after both were relegated to part-time use at their previous schools.
Ward ran for 628 yards and seven scores for Florida State, despite losing the majority of the carries to Trey Benson, while Johnson’s production was hamstrung by a woefully inept Iowa offense.
The schedule in the new-look Big 12 sets up well for a title defense. The Wildcats miss out on playing No. 20 Oklahoma and newcomers BYU and Cincinnati, which are both stout programs.
They have non-conference games against SEMO and Troy to hit their stride, then a trip to former conference rival Missouri on Sept. 16. Big 12 play opens with a long trip to UCF, while games against No. 17 TCU on Oct. 24 and No. 11 Texas on Nov. 4 could decide who plays for the title.