Today at No. 28: Kansas State
Coach: Bill Snyder (202-105-1, entering 26th season; 202-105-1 overall)
2016 record: 9-4, 6-3 in Big 12, finished fourth in league
Look back: Kansas State bounced back from a disappointing six-win season in 2015 to win nine games in 2016 thanks, in part, to the return of Jesse Ertz. The dual-threat quarterback missed most of the 2015 season due to an injury, but he returned with a vengeance. Paired with the best defense in the Big 12, Ertz helped the Wildcats finish on 2016 on a four-game win streak, including a bowl victory over Texas A&M.
Offensive starters returning: 7
Offensive starters lost: 4
Defensive starters returning: 62
Defensive starters lost: 5
Key losses: WR Deante Burton, OL Terrale Johnson, RB Charles Jones, DB Dante Barnett, LB Elijah Lee, LB Charmeachealle Moore, DB Donnie Starks, DE Jordan Willis
Top returnees: QB Jesse Ertz, WR Bryon Pringle, TE Dayton Valentine, OL Reid Najvar, DE Reggie Walker, DT Will Geary, DT Trey Dishon, CB Duke Shelley, S Kendall Adams
Strengths: Ertz is set to begin his second season as the Wildcats’ starting quarterback, with the senior coming off a tremendous season during which he threw for 1,755 yards and nine touchdowns while rushing for 1,012 yards and 12 scores. He became just the third quarterback in school history to rush for 1,000 yards and pass for 1,500 yards.
“He’s gotten stronger and stronger and stronger, and I think he readily admits right now that he’s throwing the ball better than he ever has,” Bill Snyder said Ertz during Big 12 media days.
The offensive line returns three starters led by a pair of tackles in Dalton Risner and Scott Frantz.
Weaknesses: Kansas State’s defense is coming off its best season since 2012, with the Wildcats allowing slightly more than 22 points and 388 yards per games in 2016. The unit, however, lost four of its top six tacklers from last season, including Big 12 Defender of the Year Jordan Willis and first team All Big 12 selection Elijah Lee. The pair combined for 162 tackles, 13 sacks and 11 tackles for a loss. Lee’s departure is especially painful considering the middle of the defense does not feature a returning starter from last season.
The backfield is somewhat of a mystery, with a handful of players looking to establish themselves as the starting tailback. Sophomore Alex Barnes and junior Justin Silmon combined for close to 900 yards rushing with nine total touchdowns in 2016 and they appear to be front-runners to share the rushing duties this season.
Outlook: Kansas State’s success hinges on keeping Ertz healthy. There are plenty of pieces in place for another strong season, which is why the media picked the Wildcats to finish third in the Big 12 behind potent Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.