Coming off an 11-2 season that saw the Big 12 title trophy come to Manhattan for just the second time in program history, the K-State Wildcats kicks off the 2013 season against the two-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State Bison.
Last season, the Bison went 14-1 overall, including the FCS playoffs, en route to an FCS national title. So while the Bison is an FCS foe, the Wildcats know they can’t take their season-opener lightly.
"We have really just been preparing the same way we would prepare for any other team," Tyler Lockett, preseason All-Big 12 junior wide receiver, said. "Watching film and listening to the things our coaches have been saying because they have a lot of great players."
The biggest players to look out for on the Bison lie on the offensive side of the ball. The Bison had two running backs, senior Sam Ojuri and junior John Crockett, gain 1,059 yards on the ground. Starting senior quarterback Brock Jensen is also entering his fourth year as the signal-caller.
"They have guys that are All-Americans," Lockett said. "So you have to take teams seriously because you have no idea what can happen in any game."
For the Wildcats, the biggest storyline going in is junior quarterback Jake Waters winning the starting job over redshirt sophomore Daniel Sams.
"Jake is an extremely hard worker," B.J. Finney, junior center, said. "He analyzes everything, he knows where he has to be and what he has to do. He steps up to do the best job that he can, and if he does make a mistake, then he is trying to learn from it as soon as it happens."
Finney said at Tuesday’s weekly press conference that having Waters on campus during the last spring semester helped his development into Collin Klein’s replacement.
"I think it helped Jake tremendously to get to know the system," Finney said. "(To) be able to know the play calls and just know what was expected of him early on instead of coming in over the summer or even right at the beginning of camp like some guys."
Waters will have plenty of weapons to rely on in his first career NCAA start in senior running back John Hubert as well as wide receivers Lockett and senior Tramaine Thompson.
But one of the up-and-coming receivers that could have a big impact early and often for the Wildcats this season is junior Curry Sexton. Head coach Bill Snyder named Sexton the third-starting receiver after an impressive fall camp.
"He put himself in position to be the third guy," Snyder said. "He runs routes extremely well, catches the ball well and is an aggressive player. He is a good blocker as well as a receiver."
Another player that could have a breakout year is redshirt freshman fullback Glenn Gronkowski, the little brother of superstar New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Glenn Gronkowski was named the starting fullback for this year, replacing Braden Wilson, who was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs this offseason.
"Being under Braden Wilson was huge, how much he taught me, so I think that helped a lot being able to learn from him," Gronkowski said. "When I learned I was a starting, it was exciting. I have been waiting for this for a long time and been working hard for it, so it meant a lot."
Friday night’s game will also be the debut of the new West Stadium Center, a $75 million reconstruction project to Bill Snyder Family Stadium this offseason.
"I was here last year for the Texas-Kansas State game," Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said at K-State media days. "And to see all the purple in the stands and to see the new stadium, full venue, all of the anticipation of the Westside Center and all of the things going on, it was really remarkable."
Overall, the theme for the Wildcats in this game is making sure they don’t overlook the Bison. Appalachian State was the last FCS team to win three-straight FCS titles. At the start of its third championship season in 2007, the team upset then No. 5 Michigan in one of the greatest college football upsets in history.
That’s where North Dakota State stands right now. But the Wildcats are determined to not be the same kind of footnote that Michigan became in that 2007 upset.
"Everyone that played them last year, we heard them say they are the toughest team they played all year," Gronkowski said. "Obviously, winning back-to-back championships, that is huge. We can’t go in there and take them lightly."