MANHATTAN — John Hubert can’t help but think about last year, and how a season that could have very well ended in the national championship game was ruined on a Saturday night at Baylor.
The Wildcats were undefeated and No. 1 in the BCS standings when they rolled into Waco, Texas, piloted by a Heisman Trophy finalist in quarterback Collin Klein and with seemingly the worst part of their schedule behind them. They left with a humiliating, one-sided defeat.
They’d go on to win a share of the Big 12 championship and earn a berth in the Fiesta Bowl, but that was merely a nice consolation prize.
Hubert watched as Alabama — the team that reached the title game instead of Kansas State — routed Notre Dame for the national championship, and could only stew as he thought about how the Wildcats would have fared against the Fighting Irish.
“I feel like if we were in the national championship, we probably would have won. But we weren’t,” Hubert said Monday afternoon, standing at midfield inside Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
“We came a long way, we got so close but we came up short, so there’s a lot for us to go out and prove,” Hubert said. “We still have unfinished business.”
It may be a cliche, but in the world of the Wildcats, it certainly rings true.
The Wildcats are three days into practice for a new season, and expectations are as high as ever. It doesn’t seem to matter that they lost Klein and a bevy of seniors from their defense, either.
They return their entire offensive line, skill position players such as Hubert and wide receiver Tyler Lockett, and leadership in the form of linebacker Tre Walker.
Hubert seems to believe that the pieces are there to make another run at that BCS title game.
“Everybody just needs to get to the same level, where we’re competing and worrying about right now, getting better,” he said. “It starts from Day 1 of camp.”
So does the race to replace Klein.
Daniel Sams showed promise in mop-up duty, flashing wide receiver-like athleticism and running back-type speed while rushing for 235 yards and three touchdowns in Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder’s run-based offense. A sophomore quarterback from Slidell, La., completed 6 of 8 passes for 55 yards in mop-up duty last season.
His competition comes in the form of Jake Waters, who transferred at the semester from Iowa Western Community College. He was the junior college offensive player of the year last season after throwing for 3,501 yards and 39 touchdowns with just three interceptions.
“I was looking forward to him coming in,” Sams said, “and when he got here, I introduced myself and from that point, we hit it off. He came with mutual respect. He just said, ‘I want to compete. I want to play.’ And I said the same thing.”
Waters admitted that he’s never really entered fall camp in a dead-heat for the starting job. Back in high school and even in junior college, he was always the next man up.
“We both keep an even keel. One day I’ll make a bad read or make a bad throw, one day he will,” Waters said. “We’re going to have ups and downs. You just have to stay consistent.”
There will be plenty of other jobs up for grabs as the Wildcats prepare for their Friday night season opener against North Dakota State on Aug. 30.
Arthur Brown emerged as one of the best linebackers in the nation last season, and was drafted in the second round by the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.
Fellow linebacker Jarrell Childs, top defensive backs Allen Chapman and Nigel Malone, and the entire starting defensive front also graduated.
Snyder said he could name 10 guys who have a chance at the four defensive line spots.
“We have a lot of guys who have played and who have game day experience,” said sophomore defensive end Ryan Mueller, who hopes to be one of them in the mix. “We also have guys who were role players and who are looking forward to being impact players.”
The Wildcats’ season opener was moved up a day so that it can be televised nationally, which means a bit quicker timetable to settle on a starting lineup.
After the Bison come games against Louisiana-Lafayette and UMass, and then the Big 12 grind starts with a trip to Texas.
That’s when a team picked to finish sixth in the league should be truly tested.
“All we can control is coming out every day in practice and getting better,” Waters said. “There’s a bunch of great teams in the Big 12, we’re all balanced. They were right, maybe, putting us where we were in the poll, but we’ll find out on the field. That’s where it matters.”