MANHATTAN — When Bill Snyder announced his retirement last December, marking an end — for a second time — to the most successful era in Kansas State football, speculation was rampant about which direction athletic director Gene Taylor would turn in finding a successor to the hall-of-fame coach.
Would he go for a splash hire, a big name who would immediately create a buzz around a program coming off a disappointing 5-7 season? Would he pluck someone from Snyder's coaching tree in hopes of bringing stability while also duplicate their mentor's success? Or perhaps he would reach out to a young up-and-comer with a proven Football Bowl Subdivision pedigree?
The answer, it turned out, was none of the above.
Instead, Taylor went with his heart and his gut and grabbed 51-year-old Chris Klieman, a wildly successful head coach at North Dakota State, who in five years guided the Bison to four Football Championship Subdivision national titles.
Problem was, Klieman had exactly one season of FBS coaching experience, and that as a graduate assistant at Kansas in 1997. Yet Taylor, who knew Klieman from their days together at North Dakota State, was absolutely convinced that he had the right man for the job.
The first challenge was winning over a skeptical fan base. Thanks to a social media blitz that took the fans behind the scenes at Klieman's first meeting with his new team, they were able to capture his energy and infectious enthusiasm.
That meeting, where Klieman implored the players in everything they did to "win that dang day," immediately gave birth to a Twitter hashtag. It also created a different vibe around the Vanier Football Complex while still preserving many of the principles that defined the unprecedented success of the Snyder era.
But that was December, followed by spring practice in March and April, and now the first fall camp with Klieman at the helm. At 6 p.m. Saturday, when Nicholls visits Bill Snyder Family Stadium for the dawn of a new era, the focus quickly shifts to the bottom line by which all coaches and programs ultimately are judged.
For a quick look at what to expect, here are two key questions, players and matchups for this year's Wildcats:
1. Is Chris Klieman ready for Power Five prime time?
Working in Klieman's favor is the fact that North Dakota State was not your run-of-the-mill FBS program. Not only were the Bison proven winners in their own division, but they consistently battled FBS schools for talent on the recruiting trail and also held their own against them on the field.
Klieman's teams won both their meetings with Power Five schools, knocking off Iowa State, 34-14, in his head coaching debut in 2014 and beating No. 11-ranked Iowa, 23-21, in 2016. They even got past K-State, 24-21, in the 2013 season opener when Klieman was defensive coordinator.
"Football is football," Klieman is fond of saying.
To build on his own track record, Klieman also has assembled a diverse coaching staff consisting of several FBS veteran assistants with recruiting ties to all parts of the country, some that came with him from NDSU, and quarterbacks coach Collin Klein, the lone holdover from the Snyder regime.
But in the end, it always comes down to wins and losses, which leads to the second question.
2. Just what would constitute a successful first season in the Klieman era?
Given last year's sub-.500 record and failure to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2009, flipping the 2018 5-7 mark and getting back to the postseason would be a great starting point.
The fresh start under Klieman is evident within the program, and the fan base seems to be on board, as well. The Wildcats return a number of key components from a 2018 team that with a couple of breaks could easily have gone 8-4 — or 3-9 if things had broken the other direction.
A proven quarterback and veteran line provide a good foundation for the offense, while the defense's strength appears to be up front at the end and tackle spots. The biggest concern, clearly, is a lack of depth.
1. Junior quarterback Skylar Thompson
From the moment Alex Delton announced his intention to transfer — as a graduate he's immediately eligible this fall at TCU — this became Thompson's team.
The fact that he already had a personal rapport with Klieman, who tried recruiting him to North Dakota State, was a bonus. And with no quarterback battle in the spring or fall, Thompson's confidence has grown exponentially since he no longer has to look over his shoulder.
He played in 11 games last year as a sophomore, starting 10, completing 58.7 percent of his passes for 1,391 yards and nine touchdowns, while rushing for 373 yards and five scores.
By all accounts, Thompson has embraced the leadership role and come as close to mastering a new offense as anyone could hope. But in the battle for the No. 2 spot between sophomore Nick Ast and redshirt freshman John Holcombe, neither brings any college game experience, which means keeping the starter upright throughout the season becomes paramount.
2. Sophomore defensive end Wyatt Hubert
Unlike Thompson, whose backups consist of a sophomore with on experience and a redshirt freshman, Hubert is part of a defensive end rotation that arguably is the team's deepest. But his rapid progression from a reserve role at the beginning to starter and freshman All-American by season's end, served notice that the Shawnee Heights High School product could be something special.
Coaches and teammates alike have raved about his work ethic, leadership and playmaking ability from spring into the fall, and he could be poised for a big year on the edge. Having another explosive pass rusher on the other side in senior Reggie Walker doesn't hurt, either.
1. vs. Nicholls (6 p.m. Aug. 31)
Typically a season opener at home against a FCS opponent is not viewed as a key matchup, but don't try telling that to Klieman.
He has spent most of his career in the FCS ranks with a pretty good record of beating up on the big boys in early nonconference games, so he's not about to overlook a Nicholls team that starts the season ranked No. 11 (coaches) and 12 (STATS) in the FCS preseason polls after finishing at No. 14 with a 9-4 record last year.
The Colonels, who opened last season with an overtime victory at Kansas, recently had 11 players on the preseason all-Southland team, including eight first-team selections. They will be led by quarterback Chase Fourcade, the reigning Southland player of the year. A victory is critical for K-State in getting the Klieman era off on the right foot.
2. at Mississippi State (11 a.m., Sept 14)
K-State came up empty against No. 18-ranked Mississippi State in their marquee nonconference game, losing 31-12 at home in the second game of the season. The Bulldogs (8-5 last year) did not crack the top 25 in the Associated Press preseason poll, but are knocking at the door in the 28th spot under second-year coach Joe Moorhead. They'll have a veteran quarterback in grad transfer Tommy Stevens, who played for Moorhead at Penn State. This is a game that could give Klieman and K-State instant credibility heading into Big 12 play, should they pull the upset in Starkville.
QB — Skylar Thompson, Nick Ast
RB — James Gilbert or Jordon Brown
FB — Nick Lenners, Jax Dineen
TE — Blaise Gammon, Sammy Wheeler
LT — Scott Frantz, Kaitori Leveston
LG — Tyler Mitchell, Josh Rivas
C — Adam Holtorf, Noah Johnson
RG — Evan Curl, Ben Adler
RT — Nick Kaltmayer, Christian Duffie
WR — Malik Knowles, Chabastin Taylor
WR — Dalton Schoen, Landry Weber
WR — Wykeen Gill, Phillip Brooks
DE — Reggie Walker, Bronson Massie
DT — Trey Dishon, Drew Wiley
DT — Joe Davies, Jordan Mittie
DE — Wyatt Hubert, Kyle Ball
LB — Da'Quan Patton, Daniel Green
LB — Elijah Sullivan, Cody Fletcher
NB — Jahron McPherson, Johnathan Durham
S — Denzel Goolsby, Ross Elder
S — Wayne Jones, Jonathan Alexander
CB — Walter Neil, Kevin McGee
CB — AJ Parker, Lance Robinson
K — Blake Lynch, Ty Zentner
P — Devin Anctil, Ty Zentner
KR — Phillip Brooks, Malik Knowles
PR — Phillip Brooks, Jordon Brown