With Collin Klein taking control of K-State's offense before the beginning of fall practices, the Wildcats appear stable at quarterback for the first time since Josh Freeman departed for the NFL.
With Arthur Brown leading a new-look 4-3 defense at middle linebacker, the Wildcats should be much better at tackling opponents than they were a year ago when they allowed a Big 12-worst 231.4 rushing yards per game.
And with Bill Snyder settling into his third year back on the sideline, the Wildcats are beginning to enjoy familiarity and depth.
For those reasons, K-State should be an improved team in 2011. But it might not finish with the record to prove it.
A year after the Wildcats feasted on four nonconference victories to set themselves up with an easy path to the Pinstripe Bowl, they will truly have to work their way into the postseason against the Big 12's new round-robin schedule.
The only gimmes on the slate are home games against Eastern Kentucky and Kent State. A trip to Lawrence, where the Wildcats defeated Kansas 59-7 a year ago, and a December matchup with Iowa State can also be counted as probable wins. But even if K-State emerges from those four games with four victories, a difficult path remains.
The most pivotal part of the schedule begins in late September with a nonconference trip to Miami. The Hurricanes could be short-handed, with the university looking into the eligibility of 15 players. If they are held out, K-State will have a big advantage.
From there, K-State will find out what it's like to play the entire old Big 12 South division in the same year.
First up will be home games against Baylor, which scored 47 points against the Wildcats last season and 21st-ranked Missouri. Then comes a road game at Texas Tech, which would figure to be a toss-up if the Red Raiders hadn't blown out K-State 66-14 in their last meeting (2009).
A trip to Kansas on Oct. 22 could offer relief, but K-State will need to leave that game with at least four wins to view bowl eligibility as a realistic goal. Because the next four weeks will feel like one long street fight.
Starting Oct. 29, the Wildcats will face top-ranked Oklahoma, top 10 teams Oklahoma State and Texas A&M and travel to Texas. Yikes.
K-State has enough talent to pull an upset or two in there, but it won't be easy.
Bryce Brown, the nation's top-ranked running back coming out of Wichita East, will need to emerge from a competitive group as the Wildcats' featured ballcarrier, and three new players on the interior of the offensive line will need to come along quickly.
Klein's mobility will ease the transition away from K-State's past reliance on standout running back Daniel Thomas and a veteran offensive line, but the Wildcats will still need a rushing attack to take pressure off the passing game.
On defense, Tysyn Hartman, Ty Zimmerman and David Garrett should make K-State strong in the secondary, but huge questions remain on the defensive line. Plenty of new faces will try to bring stability to a unit that could neither contain the run nor provide a pass rush last season.
If injuries strike in the wrong places and a few swing games go the wrong way, Snyder could be looking at his sixth losing season at K-State.
If everything falls into place, the Wildcats could match their seven wins from a year ago and on their way to a second straight bowl game. On paper, that might not look impressive. If it happens, it will be a big step forward.