The weight of expectation has a way of breaking some programs' back.
Fans know the ones: Every time onlookers examine the polls -- especially in preseason -- they can't help but scoff when they see how high a jersey they hate landed. Georgia? Nebraska? Texas? USC? Tennessee? "Our Year" can turn into "Better Luck Next Year" in a hurry, and the sometimes toxic mix of reputation and recruiting rankings only hastens fan unrest.
And then ... there's Kansas State.
When the (two- and three-) stars on the roster align -- specifically under center -- nobody is better at capitalizing.
"I don't have any statistics to tell me that one way or the other," head coach Bill Snyder said. "I think we'd probably prefer nobody pays attention to us and we could move on without any hype."
In that case, Snyder might prefer to ignore the next 600 words.
His Wildcats have returned a full-time starting quarterback six times in the past 20 years. In those six seasons, his teams have won 11 games five times and nine on one occasion. He won 11 games with Michael Bishop in 1998, 11 in 2000 with Jonathan Beasley, 11 in 2002 and '03 with Ell Roberson and 11 in 2012 with Collin Klein. The latter two included Big 12 titles and BCS bowl bids, too. In 2014, Snyder won nine games with Jake Waters. Add it up and you'll find that Snyder's teams have gone 64-17 since 1998 when returning a full-time starting quarterback.
This year, returning quarterback Jesse Ertz has 13 other returning starters joining him, including eight on offense.
"The main reason you see a better following season is this is a very diverse offense," Ertz said. "There's a lot to know and a lot you have to be good at. With less experience, we're not really able to do everything we could do with the football, but we'll put on the field whatever we're best at. There's just a lot of things to perfect and stuff. It's a lot for a young quarterback or a first-year guy."
Last year, the Wildcats kicked off the season with a nightmare offensive showing in a 26-13 loss to Stanford. They started just 3-3 with wins over Texas Tech, Florida Atlantic and Missouri State, but they closed the season with six wins in their final seven games, capped by a Texas Bowl win over ex-Big 12 foe Texas A&M in Houston, less than 100 miles from Aggieland.
"That first game, our offense we had like six starters playing for the first time in college," Ertz said. "When you watched us at the end, it's just a so much more mature team. We knew what our role was and we played it well."
Ertz underwent shoulder surgery in January and missed the spring, but the pieces are in place for a big year in The Little Apple.
"Me and Jesse feel like we should win every game," defensive back D.J. Reed said. "Our team feels like we should win every game. There's not a team that can beat us. We can beat ourselves, though. That's the problem. We should win every game, we should win the Big 12 and we should win the national championship. That's where our mindset's at. Last year, I wouldn't say we felt like we could get to the playoff, but we felt like we could win the Big 12."
The health of the program's greatest legend hovers over the program, however. Players at media days echoed Snyder's insistence that he "felt good" after undergoing treatment for throat cancer this spring.
"If he didn't tell us, I wouldn't have noticed. His agenda, his routine hasn't really changed," Ertz said.
The 77-year-old Snyder coached every one of his team's spring practices but moved off the sideline into the press box upstairs for the spring game. After the scrimmage, Snyder insisted reporters ignore his move, but his comments sounded more like a man futilely trying to deflect attention from an issue that's already dominated conversation around the Wildcats in the lead up to his 26th season as Kansas State's coach.
He shrugged off questions about his health at Big 12 media days earlier this month, but he also appeared thinner and sounded quieter than ever.
"The recovery is ongoing, quite obviously, but I'm doing fine, getting around fine," Snyder said. "Don't have any issues right now other than trying to prepare for the season."
Regardless, Snyder's team looks like one that could make a run at a third Big 12 title. They're picked third in the Big 12 and will likely begin the season around the top 20 nationally, but if history is any guide, expect them to be higher in both by season's end.
"When we had excellent teams, it's been about the same things we always talk about," Snyder said. "Our 16 goals: The more in tune we are with those, the better teams we have."
Despite his denials, it's obvious we're in the 11th hour of Snyder's run as the mayor of The Little Apple and the engineer behind the Manhattan Miracle. Just don't be surprised if he slips in one more masterful season before the clock strikes midnight.