MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) The bus carrying Central Arkansas to its season opener Saturday will head north on Bill Snyder Highway, pull into the parking lot at Bill Snyder Family Stadium, and unload in the shadow of a life-size bronze statue of the longtime Kansas State coach.
Then, the Bears will have to stare Snyder down on the opposite sideline.
After undergoing treatment for throat cancer this past offseason, Snyder is back for his 26th year of leading the No. 20 Wildcats. And with 18 returning starters from a team that won nine games and the Texas Bowl, among them quarterback Jesse Ertz and a veteran offensive line, the wily fox may have a team capable of challenging heavy favorites Oklahoma and Oklahoma State for the Big 12 championship.
''I think there is a confidence level, but that is pretty consistent year-in and year-out,'' Snyder said this week. ''I have said so many times, my caution is not taking anything for granted. They have the experience and have been around for a while. A lot of guys have played a lot of minutes on the field, but every day is a new day. What we do today and what we did yesterday does not count much.''
It counts for at least a little bit, though. History has shown that whenever Snyder has a veteran starter under center, things tend to turn out pretty good for the Wildcats.
Ertz returned from a season-ending ACL injury to throw for more than 1,700 yards and run for more than 1,000 yards last year, taking his place in a long line of dual-threat quarterbacks. Two of his predecessors, Ell Roberson and Collin Klein, wound up leading Kansas State to conference titles.
''Dealing with the injuries that he's had to deal with has to be frustrating for anybody,'' Kansas State assistant Andre Coleman said, ''and seeing him on the field and finally getting healthy last season, you know, was special, and to see him have that kind of success.
''The thing is,'' Coleman added, ''Jesse played a lot of the season hurt, so he still wasn't 100 percent.''
That's a scary thought for Central Arkansas.
The Bears likewise return 18 starters from a team that won 10 games and advanced through the first round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, and coach Steve Campbell is hopeful that his team can keep things close enough to give Central Arkansas a chance to spring an upset.
''We've worked against ourselves as much as we need,'' he said. ''Now we need to flip the switch.''
SNYDER'S HEALTH: Snyder has downplayed his cancer throughout the offseason, and he insisted that business went on as usual. But his son, associate head coach Sean Snyder, acknowledged the treatment took a lot out of the 77-year-old coach, and it remains to be seen how active he is on game day.
O-LINE SHUFFLE: Kansas State thought it would have four of its five starting offensive linemen back, but center Reid Najvar decided to retire after dealing with a series of concussions. That means his roommate, Adam Holtorf, will get the nod for the season opener.
B-AIR IT OUT: Central Arkansas quarterback Hayden Hildebrand put up big numbers last season, but he'll be breaking in a bunch of new targets. Gone are wide receiver Desmond Smith, the school's career leader in yards and catches, and Jatavious Wilson, who finished No. 1 in career all-purpose yards.
GRIND IT OUT: Expect the Wildcats to keep things vanilla against the overmatched Bears, especially since they like to pound the ball anyway. Alex Barnes, Justin Silmon and Dalvin Warmack give Kansas State arguably the deepest backfield in the nation, and Ertz and fullback Winston Dimel provide additional wrinkles.
ON DEFENSE: Kansas State only returns six starters on defense, but they include Big 12 newcomer of the year D.J. Reed at cornerback and Big 12 freshman of the year Reggie Walker at defensive end.
''We have a lot of returning guys,'' Kansas State linebacker Trent Tanking said. ''It's been a big emphasis about getting those returners even better, and then get those guys who are replacing them ready. Defensive side, our emphasis has always been stopping the run, and I feel we can be pretty good at that.''
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