KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - Kansas State headed into this season faced with the prospect of replacing its starting quarterback, best defensive player and a slew of other contributors on both sides of the ball.
The Wildcats shouldn't have nearly as many concerns next season.
After a dominant victory over Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl on Saturday night, Kansas State heads into the offseason brimming with optimism - and expectations. The Wildcats will return most of their key players next season, including quarterback Jake Waters and wide receiver Tyler Lockett, who hooked up for three TD passes against the Wolverines.
''We're losing some great seniors,'' Waters said, ''but with the work ethic that we have, the type of coaches that we have, we're all excited about it.''
As well they should be.
The Wildcats had to replace Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein and linebacker Arthur Brown from a Fiesta Bowl team this season, and it was a struggle early on. The Wildcats lost to lower-division North Dakota State in their season opener, and then lost its first three Big 12 games.
But by the midway point of the season, coach Bill Snyder had begun to embrace a two-QB system involving Waters and Daniel Sams, and a defense that had been gouged by Texas and Oklahoma State had improved to the point that it was holding mighty Baylor in check.
After losing a nip-and-tuck game with the Bears on Oct. 12, the Wildcats' only other loss came in a tight game against Oklahoma. Along the way, they routed Texas Tech when it was still among the nation's ranked teams, and trounced rival Kansas 31-10 to cap the regular season.
Then an impressive performance against the Wolverines, jumping out to a 21-6 lead and the tacking on a touchdown in the closing minutes to help seal the 31-14 victory Saturday night.
It was the Wildcats' first bowl victory in 11 years.
''The way the season started, it wasn't the way we wanted,'' said Waters, who threw for 271 yards and the three TDs to Lockett without tossing an interception. ''But to finish the way we did, it gives us a lot of momentum and excitement about getting started again.''
There will be holes to fill, just as there are every season, but the majority of the key players on both sides of the ball are expected back next year.
Running back John Hubert, who went over 1,000 yards for the season against Michigan, will have graduated. So will wide receivers Torell Miller and Tramaine Thompson, and three offensive linemen in Tavon Rooks, Cornelius Lucas and Keenan Taylor.
But the Wildcats worked several underclassmen into the mix this season, particularly along the offensive line, where Boston Stiverson should slip easily into one of the starting spots.
Kansas State also has a commitment from running back Dalvin Warmack from Blue Springs (Mo.) High School, the first two-time winner of the Simone Award given to top prep player in the Kansas City area. Warmack is expected to compete for the starting job this fall.
Defensive tackle Chaquil Reed, linebackers Blake Slaughter and Tre Walker, and defensive backs Ty Zimmerman, Kip Dailey and Dorrian Roberts will be lost to graduation, but backups such as Morgan Burns and Demonte Hood showed this season they can be capable replacements.
''It depends on how we practice when we get back,'' Snyder said. ''I hope we set a foundation for the younger players in our program. It will be up to them.''
Then again, Snyder thought the foundation had been laid last season, only for his team to stumble out of the gates in September and October. So he's not willing to read too much into the momentum that was gained by a late-season surge and a bowl win in the desert.
''We didn't get off to a great start. We took some things for granted. I think some of our young people realized that and turned the whole thing around,'' Snyder said. ''That's the biggest lesson probably for the young people that are in our program returning, you know, realizing how we started this season and why it took place. That `why' is the most significant thing.''
Especially given the schedule next season.
Along with the usual Big 12 round robin, and games against Stephen F. Austin and UTEP, the Wildcats welcome No. 2 Auburn to Manhattan for an early non-conference showdown.
''Looking back at the season, seeing how everybody didn't give up - it's easy to give up at 2-5,'' Lockett said. ''Being able to keep fighting, fighting, ending the season 6-1, whatever it may be, it gives us a lot more to look forward to next year.''