MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — Kansas State coach Chris Klieman knows what it's like to have everyone in the conference watching out for you.
He lived it for five seasons at North Dakota State, where high expectations turned into four national championships.
So after the Wildcats snuck up on just about everybody in the Big 12 a year ago, beating College Football Playoff-bound TCU in the league title game, Klieman is back in some familiar territory. No. 16 Kansas State begins the season Saturday night against Southeast Missouri State, one of the better teams in the Football Championship Subdivision, knowing that it will get everyone's best shot in the newly expanded conference this season.
“There's a lot of great expectations out there, and I appreciate you guys throwing those high expectations on those guys, because they have earned the right because of what they did last year,” Klieman said. “But now we have to prove it on the field. There are a lot of guys that — here are the expectations, here is what was done — but they haven't done anything yet.”
In truth, there aren't a whole lot of them, at least in the starting roles on the initial depth chart.
Will Howard is back at the clear-cut starting quarterback after seizing the job from Adrian Martinez a year ago. His entire offensive line returns intact, though Christian Duffie will miss the opener with an injury. Phillip Brooks and RJ Garcia are back to headline the wide receiver corps, and tight end-fullback Ben Sinnott could be an NFL draft pick by the spring.
On defense, the Wildcats have some holes to fill in the secondary but return Kobe Savage, one of the best safeties in the Big 12 who dealt with injuries late last season. Defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah was a first-round pick of the Chiefs, but veterans Khalid Duke, Brendan Mott and Nate Matlock should provide plenty of trouble for opposing quarterbacks.
“It's been a long offseason,” Howard said, “but it's also flown by. And man, I couldn't be more pumped for this weekend.”
Southeast Missouri State is no pushover. They're ranked No. 11 in the preseason FCS coaches poll and, like Kansas State, return a bevy of starters. The list is headlined by running back Geno Hess, who needs just 1,038 yards to break the Ohio Valley’s career rushing record of 5,149 yards.
“Our biggest challenge, I think, is just going to be ourselves. Our ego,” Redhawks coach Tom Matukewicz said. “We do have a lot of great things going for us, but I struggle with my ego and I'm 50. What do you think a 20-year-old does? We just have to make sure we check our egos, have the courage to do the things it takes to keep ourselves on track.”
The Wildcats expect Carver Willis to start at right tackle with Duffie out. Defensive tackle Uso Seumalo also has been dealing with an injury and was not on the initial depth chart, but Klieman said one of the breakout stars of fall camp practiced earlier in the week and could be a game-time decision by Saturday night.
While the Wildcats are stocked with veterans, they could play a bunch of freshmen early in the season. No fewer than 10 were able to work their way onto the two-deep, including quarterback Avery Johnson, one of their top recruits in recent memory.
Johnson, a dual-threat athlete, was listed alongside returning backup Jake Rubley on the depth chart.
“We feel really comfortable at the quarterback spot,” Klieman said. “Everyone knows that Will is the guy, but both are competing every day for the No. 2 job. We'll just see how it plays out.”
Like most programs these days, the Wildcats hit the transfer portal to fill some of their biggest holes. Keagan Johnson will start at one of the wide receiver spots after arriving from Iowa, Florida State transfer Treshaun Ward will share carries with returning running back DJ Giddens, and Marques Sigle locked down a starting safety job after his arrival from North Dakota State.
The Redhawks, the defending Ohio Valley champions, should present a nice opening test for the Wildcats on defense. They are led by defensive back Lawrence Johnson and linebacker Bryce Norman, both of whom showed up on the watch list for the Buck Buchanan Award, which is given to the nation’s top FCS defensive player.
Matukewicz should have plenty of family and friends at Bill Snyder Family Stadium on Saturday night. Not only did he grow up in Silver Lake, which is just 45 miles from the Kansas State campus in Manhattan, he coached alongside Wildcats running back coach Brian Anderson at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll