(AP) -- - The cliche runs off the tongue of quarterback Jake Waters, one that is used in everyday life by millions of people but perhaps most accurately reflects that situation at Kansas State.
''What a difference a year makes,'' he said.
Indeed, a year ago Waters was the junior college transfer in a heated battle with Daniel Sams to win the starting job. The Wildcats were replacing nine starters on defense. And after a loss to lower-division North Dakota State in their opener, expectations were hitting a nadir.
Now, a full 12 months later, Waters is firmly entrenched as the starter for Saturday's opener against Stephen F. Austin after Sams transferred to McNeese State. The defense returns a bevy of talent led by all-Big 12 defensive end Ryan Mueller. And after winning six of their final seven games, including a 31-14 win over Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, expectations are once against soaring.
''We learned a lot last season,'' senior wide receiver Tyler Lockett said. ''You can't take anything for granted. If you want it, you have to come out there and get it.''
The Wildcats certainly did that during the strangest of seasons.
After beating only Louisiana-Lafayette and UMass in their first six games, people had begun to question whether longtime coach Bill Snyder still had it. Waters and Sams were alternating just about every series, and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to anything they were doing.
Then came a blowout of West Virginia. And another of Iowa State. And the next thing anybody knew, the Wildcats were looking back on a season in which their only loss after Oct. 12 came at the hands of Oklahoma.
One thing is for certain: The Wildcats better get off to a quick start.
After facing Stephen F. Austin, they turn around and open Big 12 play at Iowa State. Week 3 brings a Thursday night showdown against No. 6 Auburn, arguably one of the most intriguing nonconference games of the college football season.
There are still plenty of holes to fill, though. The top three returning running backs have combined for 11 carries for 55 yards with zero touchdowns after three-year starter John Hubert and longtime backup Robert Rose both graduated.
Senior DeMarcus Robinson has played in six games over the course of his career, and Charles Jones and Jarvis Leverett Jr. have spent time on the scout squad.
Jones, a sophomore, will start in the opener while Robinson will serve as his backup.
''We're going to be good at running back,'' Waters said. ''We have three or four guys that are a capable of doing anything and everything we ask of them, and we're going to have to lean on them throughout the year. I'm really excited to see who steps up.''
Waters' top target will be Lockett, who ranked third in the Big 12 in both receptions (81) and yards (1,262) while ranking second with 11 touchdowns last season. He also has four return TDs in his career, and he'll be counted on to provide some big plays on special teams as well.
Defensively, the Wildcats come in with questions in the secondary after allowing 13 passing touchdowns in 2013, tied for the fewest in the Big 12. Senior Randall Evans and junior Dante Barnett return, but the remaining group is an inexperienced bunch.
''We've got some guys that have been in the program but they haven't been starters before,'' defensive coordinator Tom Hays said. ''We have to get them to where they don't lose a step.''
Mueller still is confident Kansas State can compete for the conference title and beyond.
''The Michigan game gave us a great springboard into realizing the potential of this team,'' Mueller said. ''They sky's the limit, obviously, and we've taken that approach into our summer workouts. And now we'll take that approach into the season."
Stephen F. Austin went 3-9 last season despite ranking second in the FCS in total yards with 571.6 per game. That's because the Lumberjacks also ranked second to last with 529.0 yards allowed per contest.
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