MANHATTAN, Kan. — On paper, Kansas State appears destined to rip Stephen F. Austin another orifice. Besides the obvious gulfs in talent and depth, the force of nature that is Tyler Lockett and the fact that the Lumberjacks have been outscored, 209-20, over their last four meetings with a Football Bowl Subdivision dance partner, there’s the idea that the Wildcats have been reminded for weeks now about the turd sandwich they dropped against North Dakota State last August.
"I mean, it was surprising to the guys," linebacker Jonathan Truman said of the Wildcats’ 2013 season opener on FOX Sports 1, a 24-21 loss to the Football Championship Subdivision national title-winners at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. "We expected to win that game. I feel we should have won that game.
"It was just — it just didn’t come out our way, and they did a fantastic job playing against us and scheming against us, and their players just made the plays that they had to make to win the game. So full congrats to them. But that’s a year ago. I’m not worried about it. We’re over it and we’re on to (this) year."
Fair enough. It’s just that storming out of the gate hasn’t exactly been the Wildcats’ forte, even during The Great Bill Snyder Revival Part II. In four of their last five home openers dating to 2009, the Wildcats were favored to win by 13 points or more. They won three of those four, but with an average scoring margin of just +11.5 in those contests.
In fact, take out a 51-9 demolition of Missouri State that led off the 2012 slate, and K-State’s scoring margin in the other three games was just +4 — or +1.3 points per contest.
The Wildcats have flirted with unlikely September danger before. In 2009, there was a 21-17 season-opening home win over Massachusetts, followed by a 17-15 loss at Louisiana (then Louisiana-Lafayette); in 2011, a 10-win season opened with an inauspicious 10-7 victory at The Bill over Eastern Kentucky, a four-touchdown underdog.
"It’s the same thing we always talk about — No. 1 is not taking anything for granted," Snyder said of his 20th-ranked Wildcats, who host SFA on Saturday night in the season opener for both. "Not taking your performance for granted, not taking your improvement for granted, not taking your opponent for granted."
The Lumberjacks return their top rusher in Gus Johnson (no, not that one), their top wideout in Tyler Boyd (79 catches, 1,183 receiving yards last fall) and their top tackler in linebacker Collin Garrett. But SFA is breaking in a new coach (Clint Conque) and rolling in off the heels of a 3-9 campaign. The last time the ‘Jacks went on the road in the Big 12, they were trampled at Texas Tech last fall, 61-13. A couple years before that, they went to Baylor and got smacked, 48-0, in a game that got sped up, and then ended in the third quarter, because of lightning in the area.
So it’s human nature: Wildcat fans on Saturday figure to watch the proceedings with one eye on the game, and another eye on the thunder to come. An early Big 12 tussle at Iowa State — the Cyclones in Ames have given good K-State teams fits in recent years — on Sept. 6 and a marquee non-conference Thursday-night matinee showdown with No. 6 Auburn at the Little Apple on Sept. 18.
"Just have to come out and have a strong start against Stephen F. Austin," Truman said, eschewing any Look-Past-The-Jacks narrative. "And hopefully, we can just get better from then on, and not worry about whoever we play the week after and the week after. And so, really … we’re focused on this week, getting better every week, every day, and hopefully, that’ll prepare us for (the) weeks later on."
Given the fight card to come, in a perfect world, Saturday would be the collegiate equivalent of an NFL preseason game for EMAW Nation — a chance to break in the new faces at tailback (where sophomore Charles Jones is getting the starting nod), as well as wide receiver, linebacker and safety in a frying pan as opposed to the fire.
But as any Chiefs fan will tell you, the preseason doesn’t always go the way you’d exactly planned it.
"Well, I’ve certainly made that point on numerous occasions," Snyder said. "But it’s certainly not anything I’m going to dwell on … taking things for granted, so to speak, it’s not always the opponent. Sometimes, it’s your own personal performance level. That’s always a concern."
Given the benefit of hindsight, maybe the Wildcats took the Bison lightly. Maybe they didn’t. Regardless, it’s all academic now. More likely, it was the perfect storm of a K-State team trying to break in not one, but two new quarterbacks against a veteran bunch that returned 18 starters from the season before, a group coming off two straight FCS national titles that had won 28 of its previous 30 tilts. North Dakota State wasn’t — and still isn’t — used to losing, mentally or otherwise. Good is good.
"It (was) definitely tough," Wildcats fullback Glenn Gronkowski said. "Obviously, none of us want to go back to that. So we’re just trying to do our best this week, and hopefully, it doesn’t happen again."
Different year. Different beast. The ‘Jacks return 13 starters. They’ve won 14 of their last 34. The last time K-State hosted a team from the Southland Conference, it was McNeese State in 2003. The Wildcats rolled, 55-14.
"(North Dakota State is) something that we’ll never forget," wideout Deante Burton said. "But it’s a learning lesson. Mistakes are only mistakes if you don’t learn from them. And so I think that if we can come out and not put it behind us, but remember that it happened and remember why it happened, and we can use it as fuel to make us better, then I think it’ll be something we learn from."