MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Typically Kansas State can temper expectations. To the point, at least, that Big 12 media picks the Wildcats to finish low in the conference race, then they emerge as an upstart.
Not so much this season. Bill Snyder's team is picked to finish third in the conference, settling behind only Oklahoma and Baylor in the preseason poll. Kansas State was also slotted 21st in the preseason coaches poll.
The word is finally out. Although he will turn 75 in October, Snyder can still coach. On some levels, even better than his first go-round at Kansas State, when, over a 17-year period, he reconstructed what was arguably the worst major-college football program in the country.
He tends to attract lightly-regarded players who uniformly buy into the ideals and system Snyder implements to make the Wildcats a perennial force. They are coming off an 8-5 season, which was capped with a victory over Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, and return several key pieces off that squad. Snyder even acknowledged his satisfaction with how returnees worked over the summer, a rare admission for a coach recognized as a perfectionist.
"There is an awful lot that goes into (fall camp) and they have done a nice job retaining all of that," Snyder said. "The execution on the field from an assigned standpoint has been good and from the fundamental standpoint has been good. Not great, but good."
Senior quarterback Jake Waters returns after starting every game last year as a junior-college transfer and throwing for 2,469 yards. His primary target, Tyler Lockett, ranks among the nation's top receivers after grabbing 81 receptions for 1,262 yards and 11 touchdowns, including three first-half scores to earn MVP honors in the bowl game.
"We have a bunch of guys returning and we have been through the battles, and the ups and downs of last season," said Waters, referring to a 2-4 start in which he was turnover-prone. "We know what to do and what not to do."
Kansas State must find a running back, or least a committee of dependable rushers, to ease some of the burden off Waters, Lockett and the passing attack. The competition at running back will be one of the main storylines during camp, along with offensive linemen who settle into openings on the right side. Defensively, Kansas State is looking to break in two new cornerbacks and two new linebackers, who must adapt quickly.
The early schedule is daunting. It includes a Sept. 6 trip to Iowa State for an early Big 12 test, then a visit from powerful Auburn on Sept. 18.
"Every other word out of (Snyder's) mouth is, 'One day at a time, one day at a time,'" Waters said. "You just kind of grow into it. Without even thinking about, I'm always worried about the next practice, tomorrow's practice or tonight's meeting."
The schedule is not easy. Not that it ever is in the Big 12, with games against every conference member, but Kansas State finishes with three of four on the road. It caps the season with a Dec. 6 trip to Baylor, the defending Big 12 champion.
"We did not get off to a good start last season," said Ryan Mueller, a senior defensive end who ranked second in the Big 12 last year with 11.5 sacks. "This is the mindset this year, that we need to get off to a good start because when we get off to a good start, we have great success, whether that is in games or on the practice field."
Wildcats at a glance
HEAD COACH: Bill Snyder, 23rd year at Kansas State (sixth currently), 178-90-1 as a head coach.
DRAFT PROSPECTS (includes 2015 NFLDraftScout.com rating as applicable):
QB Jake Waters (No. 28 quarterback, 546th overall) -- Possesses a strong arm and limited his mistakes as the 2013 season progressed, guiding Kansas State to wins in six of its last seven games. Size (6-1, 210) could limit his NFL prospects, though Waters has the instincts to be elusive and his accuracy should limit interceptions. Completed 61 percent of his attempts last season for 2,469 yards after leading Iowa Western to a national juco title as a sophomore in 2012.
DE Ryan Mueller (No. 33 defensive end, 403rd overall) -- One of many Kansas State standouts (Green Bay Packers WR Jordy Nelson among them) who joined the program as a walk-on. Mueller tied the Kansas State record with 11.5 sacks last season. Motor is incredible, revved to the fullest on just about every play. Size (6-2, 245) could limit his chances in the NFL, but he would make for a nice gamble in a late round, or as a free agent.
WR/KR Tyler Lockett (No. 17 wide receiver, 119th overall) -- Dismiss Lockett for his size (5-11, 175) if you want, but he is bigger than another Big 12 product, Tavon Austin, who turned enough heads at West Virginia to be taken eighth overall in the 2013 NFL Draft by the St. Louis Rams. Lockett is poised to break several Kansas State receiving records, many of which were set by his father Kevin, who played in the NFL for the Kansas City Chiefs. Lockett also averages 31.1 yards for his career on kickoff returns, with four touchdowns.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: WR/KR Tyler Lockett -- The reason why the senior is such an accomplished receiver is the time he puts in studying defenders. His footwork, breaks and routes are incredibly sharp, enabling Lockett to get an edge that often leads the coverage in its tracks. He will get double-teamed, but Kansas State has its deepest receiving corps since Snyder returned as coach. Waters' accuracy should enable him to spot Lockett in double coverage since the two work overtime practically every day to perfect timing. Lockett's returns are often a thing of beauty, though Kansas State must monitor his workload because of injury issues in the past.