DALLAS — Of all the topics Bill Snyder has addressed with his Kansas State football team this offseason, expectations may be the most prevalent.
The Wildcats were picked to finish near the bottom of the Big 12 last year and rode that lack of respect to a second-place conference finish, 10 wins and a trip to the Cotton Bowl. With Collin Klein, a Heisman Trophy contender, returning at quarterback and Arthur Brown, an All-America candidate, coming back at linebacker alongside 15 other returning starters, it seemed like K-State would start this season in a much different place.
For the first time in nearly a decade, high expectations appeared on their way to Manhattan. Handling them in the proper fashion seemed vital. Snyder’s message: Just because you were good last year doesn’t automatically mean you will be good this year. Nothing is guaranteed.
“As any coach probably would say, that’s where your greatest concern lies,” Snyder said at Big 12 media day Monday.
Then came the Big 12’s preseason media poll — K-State was sixth. Oklahoma is the new favorite, West Virginia was Big East champ, Oklahoma State is the defending champ, and TCU won the Mountain West last year. Then the Wildcats.
So much for high expectations, huh?
“You look back at last season and we moved up maybe six slots,” Snyder said. “I just hope that we can do something similar to that.”
It’s not the type of preseason hype K-State was prepared for, but it shouldn’t face much trouble adjusting. Not only have the Wildcats been there before, it is traditionally easier for teams to play as an underdog than as a favorite.
“It’s been like that ever since I’ve been here,” special teams coordinator Sean Snyder said. “Nothing changes. I can remember years when we finished in the top 10 and we still always seemed to end up in the middle of the conference. It is what it is. We deal with it.… There are all sorts of emotions evolved in it. It’s just a matter of cornering it and moving it in the right direction.”
There’s a difference between this K-State team and others, though.
Players said they won’t use this as a rallying cry as they did a year ago, when Las Vegas oddsmakers repeatedly labeled them underdogs despite their success.
“If the preseason polls decided how the season was going to go, there would be no reason to play the season,” junior safety Ty Zimmerman said. “We just have to focus on ourselves and what we need to do to get better each day.”
All those summer chats may have served a purpose after all.
“That’s the great thing about it,” junior linebacker Tre Walker said. “It’s not about everyone else’s expectations, it’s about ours. We were picked No. 8 last year. Look how we finished. It doesn’t matter how people will think you will do. It matters how you come out and play on Saturdays. That’s what really defines you.”
So what are K-State’s internal expectations?
“Our expectations are to form that family atmosphere that we’ve always had and form a team that really cares about each other and works hard,” Walker said.
K-State players have taken care of that much. At this time last year, Snyder was complaining about a lack of participation at voluntary summer workouts. Too many players were at home, and it showed when the season began. The Wildcats struggled to defeat Eastern Kentucky in their first game.
He has no such gripe now. Snyder thinks player leadership may be at a high point.
“I think our youngsters have responded well in regards to maybe not so much dealing with the fact that they are an underdog or they’re ranked lower, that it may be more so in the day-to-day improvement,” Snyder said. “Just trying to compete every single day to get themselves a little bit better and realizing the rest of it takes care of itself.”
Still, the Wildcats face challenges. The schedule includes road games at Oklahoma, West Virginia and TCU in addition to a nonconference home game against Miami.
They are also trying to fill significant holes on the offensive line, where they are trying to replace three experienced tackles, and defensive line, where they lose size in the middle and speed on the ends. K-State appears strong at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, linebacker and cornerback, but they face questions elsewhere.
For now, those questions don’t include expectations. No matter what they are.
“Our goal is like any other team – to win the Big 12 championship,” Walker said. “We won’t accept anything less.”
Talking more than football — As Bob Stoops shook hands with Klein on Monday, the Oklahoma coach and K-State quarterback had plenty to talk about.
“I heard you just got married,” Stoops said.
“I sure did,” Klein replied. “We really appreciated the card you sent.”
The two went back and forth, talking about football, marriage and honeymoons.
“It was awesome,” Klein said of the wedding. “It was great. We are both very blessed. It was just an amazing time.”
Klein married former K-State women’s basketball player Shalin Spani on Saturday, and the ceremony included some big-name guests such as Snyder and Oklahoma quarterback Blake Bell. The newlyweds are headed to Cancun for their honeymoon later this week.
He is in the middle of perhaps the most hectic week of his life.
“It is busy,” Klein said. “It is a little hectic. You just make the best of it and enjoy the heck out of it.”
Snyder was asked if Klein was prepared to handle marriage on top of all his other responsibilities. He laughed before answering. Klein has always had plenty on his schedule, including school, football and church. This will be no different.
“It’s going to be an amazing relationship,” Snyder said.
No big change — Tom Hayes is taking over for Chris Cosh as K-State’s defensive coordinator, but don’t expect any major changes. Hayes served as defensive backs coach before being promoted in the offseason.
“Philosophically we will stay pretty much the same,” Snyder said. “If Tom has some thoughts we will certainly entertain them. But in terms of what we are doing, we won’t look any different.”
Rule changes — Snyder isn’t looking forward to playing with the new rule that allows kickoffs from the 35-yard line instead of the 30. Nor is he a fan of the new rule that moves touchbacks out to the 25.
“The kickoff rule, as much as anything, moving it up five yards both ways, it almost takes kickoffs out of the game,” Snyder said. “Maybe that hurts us. We returned three last year and they featured prominently into some of the wins we had.”
Late arrivals — Though most of K-State’s players are on campus and accounted for, Snyder said four junior-college transfers have yet to arrive. They are defensive linemen Hakeem Akinola and Chaquil Reed, wide receiver Marquez Clark and offensive lineman Ellwood Clement. Snyder expects all four to be with the team for the start of training camp on Aug. 1.