Chris Klieman Kansas State Big 12 Media Days

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The last time Chris Klieman was at midfield of AT&T Stadium before Thursday, he was celebrating the crowning moment of his career as coach of Kansas State, when the Wildcats defeated TCU last December for their first outright Big 12 championship since 2003. 

With the focus shifting to the 2023 season as Big 12 Media Days continued outside Dallas, Klieman knows well that the success from a year ago puts an entirely different set of expectations on K-State this fall, at least from the outside looking in. A Wildcats team that returns 13 starters was picked second in the Big 12 preseason media poll behind Texas, with 14 voters picking K-State to repeat as league champs. 

It's a prospect that excites Klieman, who captured four FCS national championships in five seasons as North Dakota State's coach before arriving at K-State in time for the 2019 season. The standard he created at NDSU has Klieman well aware that while opponents may be circling the Wildcats on their calendars this season, K-State can't view any opponent as lesser than others -- certainly not with the Big 12's parity -- if they want to be competing for another league title.

"I'm kind of excited [about being the hunted, but in this league, I think everybody circles every game," Klieman said Thursday. "I've never bought into one game being more important than another. If you do, what are you going to tell your players the next week, that this one is not quite as important? But yeah, to be the hunted, the fact that we're the defending Big 12 champs means nothing when you go into [any given game]. Still, you've got to perform. Fortunately we've had past experiences from my previous school that we had to win a championship and then come back and follow it up with another championship." 

Headlining the returning talent from K-State's Big 12 championship team from last season is quarterback Will Howard. A mid-season injury to Adrian Martinez, who emerged as the Wildcats' Week 1 starter last season in his final year of eligibility after transferring from Nebraska, opened the door for Howard to become an anchor the rest of the way as K-State completed its conference title run. That included a three-touchdown performance -- two passing and one rushing -- during the Big 12 Championship victory.

Now poised to be the guy for the Wildcats in his fourth year on campus, Howard is ready to lead once again by example, keeping an underdog mindset even as K-State does expect to have an increased target on its back. 

"We're always going to view ourselves as the underdog," Howard said. "I feel that is kind of the K-State mindset. No matter what, we won the Big 12 [last year], but people are still going to be talking about Texas and Oklahoma and all that. We like that. That is who we are: A blue-collar, put-our-nose-to-the-grindstone kind of school. We're going to continue to try to [maintain] that hunter mindset, even though we are the reigning champs." 

In what will be the Big 12's first year without a round-robin format since 2010 after expanding to 14 members this offseason, K-State won't have Oklahoma on the schedule, but opponents do include the preseason Big 12 favorite Longhorns on the road and a home game against a revenge-seeking Horned Frogs team. If the Wildcats do keep their status as a contender, Klieman expects Howard's leadership to be a big reason.

"Confidence and belief are the two things I think of when I think of Will Howard," Klieman said. "He's had an incredible journey at Kansas State ... He's always weathered the storm. He's always bet on himself and believed in himself. And most importantly, as we come into fall camp, the whole football team believes in Will Howard. The whole football team knows that you can win a Big 12 Championship with Will Howard at quarterback." 

In turn, it speaks to the culture Klieman has fostered with his mantra of "win the dang day." The Wildcats did just that when it mattered most last December en route to a 10-win season, which was followed by a contract extension for Klieman this spring through 2030. Now comes the chance for him and his players to show that K-State isn't going anywhere. 

"I think Chris has built a culture that can feed upon itself," K-State athletic director Gene Taylor told CBS Sports. "I think it starts with the leadership of the locker room. He has some tremendous leaders. When you bring in new recruits, they see that culture. I saw that at NDSU under his leadership [when hiring him]. He's beginning to establish that here. We are not going to be a team that will be easily pushed around."