By most accounts, Chris Klieman met, if not surpassed, expectations at Kansas State in his first season as a Power Five head coach.

Taking over a team that ended a nine-year postseason run the year before, he led the Wildcats to an 8-5 record, a bowl appearance and a four-way tie for third place in the Big 12 at 5-4. Not bad.

But skeptics remain that he can do it again, as evidenced by the Big 12 media preseason poll, where K-State is picked no better than seventh. Note: a year ago, the Wildcats were picked ninth.

"You always feel pressure, but that's from within," said Klieman, who knows a thing or two about expectations after leading North Dakota State to four FCS national championships before taking the K-State job. "But no, it's much more comfortable this year.

"It's like Skylar (Thompson, K-State's senior quarterback) or anybody else who has been in the system for a year. You know how things work, you know how things operate, you know more people in the facility, and so I think all of us coaches have felt much more comfortable in Year Two."

It's a good thing for Klieman and his staff that they were more comfortable with their surroundings, because little else felt normal as they attacked their second year in Manhattan.

First came the departure of defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton for Michigan State, which resulted in Joe Klanderman's promotion from safeties coach to coordinator. Then came the global coronavirus pandemic, which wiped out spring practice and also a good portion of summer conditioning.

"It stinks that we lost all of the winter and the spring and the summer, but it allowed us as coaches to be around each other probably more because nobody took any vacations this summer," Klieman said. "We just saw each other all the time.

"So that was probably, in hindsight, a good thing."

As the Wildcats transitioned from summer workouts into preseason camp, a cloud of uncertainty hung over college football. The Big 12 ultimately decided to go with a 9-plus-1 plan of a full-league round-robin and one nonconference game, though players and coaches alike know that it could come to a grinding halt at any time.

"That's one of the few times as a football coach where you don't have a lot of answers to give them," Klieman said. "I'm a big believer in controlling what you can control and that's what's in front of you today."

Here's what else is in front of the Wildcats as we take a look at two key questions, players and matchups for this year's K-State team:


1. Can K-State rebuild an offensive line that lost all five starters to graduation?

That is the million-dollar question, especially for an offense that relies heavily on an effective rushing attack out of multiple formations to fuel the offense as a whole. And with no spring practice, there was no offseason time to build the eventual starters into a cohesive unit.

"There's really no way to make up for lack of experience when you don't have the ability to get guys in competitive situations," offensive line coach Conor Riley said. "So we took advantage of every chance we could within NCAA rules to meet and meet via Zoom, and to have quizzes.

"We tried to get that mental aspect really honed in, allowing them to focus in the way we talk about being cohesive. Those are the things we've really got to work on now."

Junior left guard Josh Rivas is the only returning lineman who was a regular part of last year's rotation, which featured five senior starters. And senior center Noah Johnson has been the vocal leader, to the point he was elected a team captain.

Offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham said Thursday that he has been pleased with the progress through camp. In addition to Rivas and Johnson, he has penciled in sophomore Kaitori Leveston at left tackle and junior Ben Adler at right guard, with sophomore Christian Duffie, redshirt freshman Cooper Beebe or junior Logan Long at right tackle.

2. Can the defense continue its resurgence from last year under new coordinator Joe Klanderman?

The fact that Klanderman already was on staff last year and comes from the same North Dakota State coaching tree as predecessor Scottie Hazelton is a good sign, especially with no spring practice to implement wholesale changes. Klanderman will continue to coach the safeties, while newcomer Steve Stanard takes over the linebackers.

Stanard also has North Dakota State connections, serving with then-defensive coordinator Klieman in 2012-13, then following Craig Bohl to Wyoming.

The Wildcats return veteran talent at every level of the defense, led by Wyatt Hubert at defensive end, Elijah Sullivan and Justin Hughes at linebacker, with cornerback AJ Parker and safeties Wayne Jones and Jahron McPherson in the secondary.

As for Klanderman, he already feels comfortable in his new role.

"I'm a Type A kind of a guy, I guess," Klanderman said. "I like the responsibility to be mine.

"I learned a tremendous amount from Scottie Hazelton — I think he's phenomenal (and) one of the smartest guys I've been around. (But) I like the buck to stop with me as much as I can."


1. Senior quarterback Skylar Thompson

A year ago, Thompson was still adjusting to the fact that this was now his team. He started as a sophomore, but was locked in a constant battle with backup Alex Delton, who later transferred to TCU.

Thompson blossomed into the unquestioned leader on offense and the entire team, which was vital during the COVID-19 shutdown.

He also was an effective leader on the field, where he completed nearly 60% of his passes for 2,315 yards and 12 touchdowns with just five interceptions while ranking second on the team in rushing with 405 yards and 11 scores.

His composure could be tested early, with a rebuilt offensive line and the loss of the two leading running backs from a year ago. But having a veteran quarterback who begins his third year as a starter and second season in Courtney Messingham's offense clearly is an advantage.

"I think it's a huge deal, not just for myself, but for our offense," Messingham said.

2. Junior defensive end Wyatt Hubert

Hubert, who was listed as a player to watch last year based primarily on potential, lived up to that billing and more as he established himself as one of the Big 12's top defenders.

He was a first-team all-conference selection by both the coaches and media after tying for seventh on the Wildcats with 33 tackles and leading the team with 12.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks. And he has now bulked up to 270 pounds.

But Hubert also is a marked man now, which means teams will scheme against him, something he already experienced last year.

"It's obviously going to be a lot tougher, but players deal with that all the time," Hubert said of the extra attention. "Some players let it deplete their stats from the previous years, but some players take it as challenge and end up with better stats.

"Obviously that's my goal, to end up with better stats than last year with that extra challenge I have in front of me."


1. vs. Arkansas State (2:30 p.m. Sept. 12) — The lone nonconference game against a Sun Belt Conference opponent might not look like a key game given the fact that the rest of the schedule features all Big 12 teams.

But with COVID-19 looming like a dark cloud over the season, looking too far ahead would be foolish. Besides, the Red Wolves historically have not been pushovers, winning eight or more games four of the last five years with six straight bowl appearances.

It will offer the first look at K-State's offensive line, which plays such a key role in Messingham's offense. It also should provide some answers as to how the Wildcats have done in filling vacancies on both sides of the ball.

2. at Oklahoma (11 a.m., Sept. 26) — K-State shocked Oklahoma a year ago in Manhattan, handing the Sooners their only regular-season loss. So opening the Big 12 campaign with a trip to Norman offers plenty of intrigue and story lines.

The Sooners, who are favored to repeat as league champions and ranked No. 8 nationally in the Associated Press preseason poll, surely remember that loss as vividly as the Wildcats do what was Klieman's first signature victory.

If K-State can somehow steal a road victory against OU, it could set the table for a special season. An embarrassing loss could send the Wildcats in the opposite directions.