MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Bill Snyder is back on the sideline and Jesse Ertz is back under center, and those two facts alone are enough to make Kansas State a dangerous contender in a wide-open Big 12 this season.
The 77-year-old coach underwent treatment for throat cancer this past offseason but hardly missed a day in the office, and he long ago pronounced himself ready for another season with the Wildcats.
His quarterback underwent surgery on his throwing shoulder to fix an injury that occurred last season, and Ertz will be ready for the season opener Sept. 2 against Central Arkansas.
It will be the seventh time in 26 seasons that Snyder will have a clear-cut returning starter at quarterback to guide his complex offense. The first five times resulted in 11-win seasons and the last time merely nine wins, the same number that Ertz led the upstart Wildcats to last season.
"We were pretty decent at the end of the season last year," Snyder acknowledged during a recent interview, "so there is great expectations. There is nothing wrong with that. That is great. The key element is you have to do something about it."
Indeed, Ertz is only the most visible -- and arguably most important -- of the returning starters.
The Wildcats have three starters back to protect him on the offensive line, and a trio of running backs in Alex Barnes, Justin Silmon and Dalvin Warmack behind him. Byron Pringle and Dominique Heath give Ertz a pair of veteran wide receivers, while uncommon depth across the board could make Kansas State's methodical, ground-based offense one of the best in the Big 12.
"We are up there for sure," said Barnes, a sophomore. "We have a lot of guys coming back and I think the passing game is going to be good. This is going to be a fun year."
The defense must replace linebackers Mike Moore, Elijah Lee and Will Davis along with conference defensive player of the year Jordan Willis up front. But there is talent in the pipeline, highlighted by JUCO transfer Da'Quan Patton, and plenty of experience elsewhere on defense.
Trey Dishon and Will Geary should lead the way up front, while the secondary returns cornerbacks Duke Shelley and D.J. Reed, veteran safety Kendall Adams and a handful of backups.
"I feel like our secondary can match up with anybody in the Big 12," Adams said, "and I've always felt like the Big 12 has the best offenses, so I don't see why we can't match up with anybody in th enation. I have a lot of confidence in those guys."
As the Wildcats prepare for their opener, here are some of the other key story lines:
ERTZ-WHILE STAR:Even with a shoulder injury much of last season, Ertz threw for 1,755 yards and nine touchdowns while running for 1,012 yards and 12 more scores. The Wildcats would gladly take the same production, and a healthy shoulder could help his 57.6 percent completion rate.
DEEP STABLE:Barnes and Silmon are likely to split most of the carries, while Warmack will try to work his way into the running back mix. When you combine Ertz's running ability and All-Big 12 fullback Winston Dimel, the Wildcats may have the most depth at the position in the nation.
"A lot of people say that we are run-heavy," Dimel said, "but we like to consider ourselves a balanced team. It helps us in this league. Most defenses do not match us each week."
DEFENSIVE LEADERSHIP:Expect former walk-on Trent Tanking to earn one of the starting linebacker jobs, and with it a healthy dose of the leadership load. Willis and departed safety Dante Barnett were the unquestioned leaders last season, and there's a big void for someone to step up.
Reed and Shelley are also good bets to lead vocally and by example.
MEDICAL BILL:Snyder admitted feeling weaker while undergoing cancer treatment, but his strength has slowly returned. The question now is whether Snyder will make it through a grueling season without any problems -- and whether this will be his last in charge.
SCHEDULE SETUP:After their opener against Central Arkansas, the Wildcats play Charlotte and then visit Vanderbilt, giving them a good chance to build their confidence. They begin Big 12 play against Baylor, visit Texas and play TCU before a potentially pivotal showdown with Oklahoma on Oct. 21.
"My caution to our players and to anybody that would listen would be not to take anything for granted," Snyder said. "You still have to do it. The old adage, 'You still have to play the game.'"