Finally, we come to the end, which is also the beginning.
Everyone remembers last season's opening game debacle against North Dakota State, and this season the Wildcats again open the season against a FCS opponent in Stephen F. Austin. However, unlike North Dakota State, the Lumberjacks come into Manhattan having fired head coach J.C. Harper (winner of back to back conference titles in 2009 and 2010) after finishing last season with a 3-9 record. This season the Jacks labor under new head coach Clint Conque, formerly of Central Arkansas. Conque coached the Bears for 14 seasons, and hopes to improve upon a defense that finished second to last in the FCS, giving up 49.3 points and 527.8 yards per game.
New defensive coordinator Matt Williamson has a huge task in front of him as he tries to rebuild the defense. Williamson has begun that process by switching to a 4-2-5 base defense and instilling a new sense of physicality in his returning players. He had hoped to get a huge boost when Devonte Fields announced he would transfer to Stephen F. Austin after being permanently separated from TCU for allegedly punching his ex-girlfriend in the head. However, TCU ruled he was ineligible for a transfer waiver, and that forced Fields to back out of his plans to enroll with the Lumberjacks. That is good news for Kansas State as they won't have to face the Pre-Season Big 12 defensive player of the year.
The Lumberjacks will instead turn to another Big 12 transfer, senior linebacker Collin Garrett (formerly of Kansas), to help lead a revamped defense. Garrett is joined by fellow senior defensive end Ishmiah Miles and senior defensive back Trey Vallier as the leaders on defense. Garrett finished second on the team with 88 tackles, including four and a half for loss, and two interceptions. Miles, a Southland Conference All-Academic team honoree, totaled 41 tackles, five sacks and one fumble recovery while playing in all 12 games. Vallier made 10 starts last season, recording 48 tackles and a team leading four interceptions. While it's doubtful the Lumberjacks can put a lid on the Waters to Lockett connection, any mistake Waters makes with Vallier in the area could end up as an interception. While terrible last season, this is still a talented defensive team that Kansas State can not afford to overlook. The opposite side of the ball presents a very nice opening game challenge for the Wildcat defense as the Lumberjacks averaged 38.5 points and 571.6 yards on offense last season.
Leading the high scoring, yardage-churning offense will be senior running back Gus Johnson. While not as famous as this Gus Johnson, the senior running back from Gilmer, Texas, looks to establish himself as one of the best running backs to ever play at Stephen F. Austin. He currently sits at sixth on the school's all-time rushing list with 2,224 career yards, while ranking third all-time in touchdowns with 28. Partnering with Johnson to lead the Lumberjack offense is University of Texas-San Antonio transfer (and the head coach's son) Zach Conque. A sophomore, Conque transferred to Stephen F. Austin after playing in just one game as a red-shirt freshman for UTSA. Conque is expected to split reps with junior quarterback Joe Minden as head coach Clint Conque continues to look for the best fit to lead his offense in 2014.
The position with the least question is clearly the receiving corps, which returns seven of their top eight receivers from the 2013 season. Seniors Tyler Boyd and DJ Ward and junior Aaron Thomas combined for 180 receptions and 2,711 yards in leading a receiving corps that led the entire FCS in receiving yardage. Having this kind of talent to throw the ball to will certainly help with the development of Zach Conque, and should help Clint Conque is his transition as the new head coach.
Overall, this is a team that Kansas State should handle easily. However, if the Wildcats come out expecting to walk all over Stephen F. Austin, the Lumberjacks do have the talent to give K-State a scare. With last year's collapse against North Dakota State hanging over this team I do not expect any sort of let down, and neither do the other writers.