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Wildcats out to defend title

By DAVE SKRETTA

Associated Press

MANHATTAN -- The last time Kansas State won a conference championship, Bill Snyder was still in his first tenure in Manhattan and nobody had any reason to believe the success would ever end.

After all, that 2003 season marked the sixth time in seven years that the Wildcats won at least 11 games. Snyder had built a program from national laughingstock to perennial contender, his teams seemingly always appearing in the Top 25 and usually in title consideration.

Well, they went 4-7 the following year.

Now in his second stint leading the program, Snyder isn't about to allow anybody on his team to take last year's success for granted. Kansas State may have won another Big 12 title and played in the Fiesta Bowl, but the sagely coach has eyes only on the future.

"In all honesty, I walk out on the field and wonder how we're going to get better today. You hear me say it time and time again and I don't have any other thoughts," Snyder said. "Part of that is from a leadership role, everybody has to set an example and I need to set the example."

The Wildcats have followed it, toiling away in the summer heat this offseason with the same kind of focus as their 73-year-old coach. No breaks. No time to relax.

"I don't think they have collectively given me a particular reason to believe they have taken the upcoming season, or their performance, their preparation, for granted," Snyder said, "but you know, the best way to define that will be after we have been given a chance on the field."

That first chance comes Aug. 30 against defending FCS champion North Dakota State. As the Wildcats prepare for their season opener, here are five story lines to watch:

1. DOES SNYDER STILL HAVE IT? His intensity seemed to wane after Snyder won his first Big 12 title, part of the reason he retired a couple of seasons later. Now that he's returned the program to the top of the conference, does he still have the same passion to succeed? "The approach is not any different," he promised.

2. WHO WILL BE THE QB: Daniel Sams was impressive in mop-up duty last season, but the speedy sophomore essentially never threw a pass. Now, he's being pushed by JUCO transfer Jake Waters, who put together a record-setting season at Iowa Western Community College last season. Snyder said it's possible the starter won't be decided until the week of the opener.

"I'm not backing down from the competition," Sams said. "It just makes me more hungry because we both feel like we have the opportunity to be the starter."

3. LEADERSHIP VOID: Without question, the two biggest leaders last season were quarterback Collin Klein, a Heisman Trophy finalist, and linebacker Arthur Brown, a second-round draft pick. Who steps into those positions will be critical this season. Sams and Waters are natural choices given the position they play, but there's plenty of experience on both sides of the ball. Senior running back John Hubert and senior defensive back Ty Zimmerman already have begun to step into the leadership void.

"It's not easy. It's kind of difficult," Hubert said. "But I've been here for five years, I kind of know what to expect and what to do as far as stepping up and helping out the young guys."

4. COACHING TURNOVER: Snyder has grown accustomed to losing coaches to more high-profile positions, a byproduct of success. He lost two more this offseason when Joe Bob Clements left for a job with rival Oklahoma State and Michael Smith departed for Arkansas. Former defensive end Blake Seiler, who'd been a graduate assistant, takes over for Clements as the coach of his old position. Youngstown State assistant Andre Coleman, who played for Snyder in the 1990s, is back to replace Smith as the wide receivers coach.

"It's a dream come true to be a part of a program that's been so good to me, to be back in a place that has so many special memories in my football career," Coleman said.

5. STARTING FAST: The Wildcats open with games against North Dakota State, Louisiana and UMass, which means they should be 3-0 when they open league play at Texas on Sept. 21. That also means they could be unbeaten and coming off a bye when they visit league favorite Oklahoma State on Oct. 5, a match-up that should help to shape the Big 12 race.

Predicted order of finish in the Big 12: Sixth.