MANHATTAN — Kansas State was picked to finish near the bottom of the Big 12 last year, and didn’t do anything to change expectations with a last-gasp win over Eastern Kentucky to open the season.
By the end of it, the Wildcats were playing in the Cotton Bowl.
Much of the praise for the success fell on Bill Snyder, the wizard of the Flint Hills, who returned a few years back from retirement to rescue a program that he built from dust.
Just as much praise fell on Collin Klein, the Wildcats’ gritty run-first quarterback, who doesn’t seem to be truly in the game unless he has blood on his jersey, and whose late-game heroics led the program to more come-from-behind victories than could reasonably be expected.
Both are back for another go-around, and expectations are far higher this season, even if the old coach and his veteran quarterback refuse to believe it.
“I wouldn’t say there’s any kind of different feeling,” Snyder said. “It’s always improve day-in and day-out as a player, a teammate, an individual — across the board.
“If you improve, then you’ll help us be a successful team.”
Hard to argue with that after last season.
After Klein rescued the Wildcats from a potentially embarrassing loss in Week 1, they just kept getting better — the dramatic win at Miami, when a video review gave Klein the winning touchdown run on the final play, and the comeback victory over Robert Griffin III and Baylor.
The Wildcats would go on to win 10 games for the first time since claiming the Big 12 title in 2003, during Snyder’s first tenure as coach.
“We were a better team at the end of last season than we were at the beginning,” Klein said, “a better team at the end of spring than we were at the beginning of spring, and we’ve just got to make sure we’re a better team at the end of camp than we were at the beginning.”
Simple in theory, but many teams seem to struggle with it.
Perhaps it’s Snyder’s exacting attention to detail, a by-the-book, old-school way of teaching the game that startled just about everyone in the program when he returned.
Or maybe it’s the fabric of a team full of guys no other major programs wanted.
Klein was recruited by a handful of schools when he decided on Kansas State, but he’s flourished into one of the most mesmerizing quarterbacks in college football. He threw for 1,918 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, and had 1,141 yards and 27 TDs on the ground.
Now, his picture is showing up on billboards along Interstate 70.
“It’s a different dynamic,” Klein said. “Sometimes that exterior stuff just disappears, and it should, because it’s not what’s most important, and that’s just getting ourselves as well prepared as we possibly can.”
Klein certainly isn’t the only leader who emerged last season.
Pint-sized running back John Hubert, an under-the-radar guy like Klein, showed he could take a pounding in the Big 12. Wide receiver Chris Harper, a transfer from Oregon, caught 40 passes for 547 yards and five touchdowns — impressive numbers in a ground-based offense.
On defense, linebacker Arthur Brown — another transfer, this time from Miami — put up one of the best statistical seasons in school history. Along with a slew of tackles, he also showed big-play ability when he picked off Griffin to rally Kansas State past Baylor.
Brown could have declared early for the NFL draft, but he opted for one more season.
“He’s come out of his shell a little bit,” defensive back Nigel Malone said of the team’s defensive wrecking ball. “It’s good for the team to see that, somebody who’s high-profile like that. The best thing about him is that he’s stayed the same even through all the success.”
Malone was pretty successful, too. He picked off seven passes, broke up 10 more and has shown up on just about every All-American watch list this season.
Kansas State, which finished 10-3, opens the year against lower division Missouri State on Sept. 1, and then welcomes Miami in the return of their home-and-home series. The Wildcats’ final non-conference game is against North Texas before diving right into the Big 12 with a road trip to Oklahoma.
The schedule doesn’t get much easier with trips to newcomers West Virginia and TCU, but after last season, there’s a sense that it doesn’t matter who the Wildcats play, or where.
They’re going to provide a tussle regardless.
• Kansas State Wildcats
2012 football schedule
Sept. 1 — MISSOURI STATE, 6 p.m.
Sept. 8 — MIAMI, 11 a.m. (ABC)
Sept. 15 — NORTH TEXAS, 6 p.m.
Sept. 22 — At Oklahoma
Oct. 6 — KANSAS
Oct. 13 — At Iowa State
Oct. 20 — At West Virginia
Oct. 27 — TEXAS TECH
Nov. 3 — OKLAHOMA STATE
Nov. 10 — At Texas Christian
Nov. 17 — At Baylor
Dec. 1 — TEXAS