KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) Ryan Mueller still finds it hard to talk about one year later.
Kansas State was opening a new season amid high expectations. The school was dedicating a $90 million renovation to its football stadium. A bronze statue of coach Bill Snyder that stood to the west of the press box was unveiled amid much pomp and circumstance.
Then the Wildcats were humbled by a team from the Football Championship Subdivision.
”I want to forget that loss and not bring it back up, but it’s hard because it was about this time last year that North Dakota State came into the house and beat us,” Mueller said. ”I think it kind of showed our lack of maturity, and maybe we were a little overconfident.”
There’s a good chance the Wildcats won’t make a similar mistake Saturday night.
No. 20 Kansas State returns several key players from that team, which rallied to win eight times and beat Michigan in its bowl game, as it opens the season against Stephen F. Austin.
The Lumberjacks, a longtime FCS powerhouse, won just three games last season.
”We’ve learned a lot. Regardless of what division you are, teams are going to come to play,” said the Wildcats’ Tyler Lockett, one of the top wide receivers in the Big 12. ”You can’t take anything for granted. They’re not just going to let you win. You have to be able to go out there and compete. They’re not going to lay down. If you want it, you have to come and get it.”
Last year was hardly the first time the Wildcats had struggled against a lower-profile team.
They were ranked sixth in 2003 when they lost to Marshall at home, and were No. 13 the next year, when they lost to Fresno State in their second game. They lost to Louisiana early in the 2009 season, Snyder’s first after coming back from a brief retirement.
”We may have not overlooked North Dakota State, but just didn’t have them highlighted like we need to highlight every single game,” Wildcats linebacker Jonathan Truman said. ”This year we’ve been thinking about Stephen F. Austin. That’s the one game we’ve been thinking about.”
Besides, a win over a Big 12 foe would trump just about everything for the Lumberjacks.
”With every great challenge comes an awesome opportunity,” said coach Clint Conque, who was hired away from Southland Conference rival Central Arkansas in December. ”It’s an opportunity for us to compete and see where we are as a program.”
What to watch when Kansas State and Stephen F. Austin open their seasons:
EASY LOOKAHEAD: Sure, the Wildcats are saying all the right things when it comes to focusing on the Lumberjacks. But with their Big 12 opener at Iowa State looming next week, and a showdown against No. 6 Auburn after that, nobody would blame them for looking ahead.
BIG 12 BULLIES: The Lumberjacks have never beaten a Big 12 foe in seven tries, including four games against Baylor. Stephen F. Austin was routed 61-13 by Texas Tech a year ago, a team Kansas State beat handily in November.
HUBERT’S HEIR: John Hubert was a stalwart at running back for Kansas State, starting each of the past three seasons. Now, the Wildcats are trying to find somebody to fill his shoes. Charles Jones will get the first shot with DeMarcus Robinson and Jarvis Leverett Jr. also in the mix.
WALKING ON WATERS: Jake Waters finally became comfortable midway through last season, and it showed in the quarterback’s play down the stretch. Now a senior, he enters the season with lofty expectations. ”The game started to slow down for me,” Waters said. ”I learned how to read defenses better, how to study film of our opponents. And I just kind of kept growing.”
CONQUE’S CHORE: A few eyebrows were raised when Conque left Central Arkansas for a conference rival in the offseason, especially one that his team beat by five touchdowns. But there is plenty of talent in Texas, and Stephen F. Austin has a solid tradition. Conque is banking on those factors to aid in a quick turnaround. ”The players have bought into a new way, a new attitude of doing things,” Conque said, ”but we have a lot of work to do.”