2016 season preview: Kansas State Wildcats

Bill Snyder is trying to avoid consecutive losing seasons at Kansas State. Scott Sewell/USA TODAY Sports

This season marks Bill Snyder's 25th at Kansas State. His accomplishments in Manhattan are well-documented in two stints, the second of which is entering its eighth year. And for the first time time since the final year of his first run, which ended on a sour note in 2005, Snyder attempts to rebound in 2016 from a losing season. The Wildcats finished 6-7 a year ago, capped by a loss to Arkansas in the Liberty Bowl.

Expectations call for K-State to bounce back nicely. Here’s our 2016 preview:

Key losses: WR Kody Cook, OG Luke Hays, OT Matt Kleinsorge, OG Boston Stiverson, OT Cody Whitehair, DT Travis Britz, DE Marquel Bryant, CB Morgan Burns, CB Danzel McDaniel, DB Nate Jackson

Key returners: QB Jesse Ertz, QB Joe Hubener, RB Charles Jones, WR Deante Burton, C Dalton Risner, DT Will Geary, DE Jordan Willis, LB Elijah Lee, LB Charmeachealle Moore, LB Will Davis, S Dante Barnett, CB Duke Shelley, CB Donnie Starks, K Matthew McCrane

Preseason storyline: For Kansas State to avoid another losing season -- remember, two straight drove Snyder out of coaching more than a decade ago -- its defense must make major strides. And the pieces are there with eight returning starters, including all-conference potential at all three levels, led by a standout group of linebackers.

Preseason All-Big 12 picks Geary and Lee headline the defense, but don’t overlook the secondary, which in underrated behind the direction of sophomore Shelley at cornerback and do-it-all senior safety Barnett.

Barnett missed most of last season with a shoulder injury, contributing to K-State’s woes, as the Wildcats surrendered 452 yards, including 285 through the air, and and 31.5 points per game.

Most interesting position: Quarterback. The competition continues to rage in Manhattan between junior Ertz, senior Hubener and redshirt freshman Alex Delton. If anyone other than Ertz, though, takes the first snap on Sept. 2 at Stanford, consider it a surprise.

Ertz won the job a year ago, then lost it on the first play from scrimmage as he suffered a season-ending knee injury against South Dakota. Hubener kept the Cats afloat, throwing for 1,837 yards nine touchdowns and running for another 613 and 13 TDs.

The Wildcats selected Ertz as a captain this year. He’s yet to throw a pass at the college level but has earned respect normally reserved for veterans. And despite his credentials, a high degree of uncertainty accompanies his extended stay as the K-State starter -- should it occur in September.

Game that matters most: The Wildcats have won two straight games at Oklahoma. A Week 7 visit to Norman serves more this year as a litmus test than a solid upset opportunity. The Sooners trampled Kansas State 55-0 last year in Manhattan, so there won’t be much reminiscing ahead of the Oct. 15 game about K-State’s 31-30 win in 2014. Before the debacle a year ago, Kansas State had scored in 234 consecutive games, dating to 1996.

The trip to Norman comes after a manageable start to league play at West Virginia and at home against Texas Tech. It precedes a visit from Texas, so a good showing -- even in defeat -- could play a role in defining the Wildcats’ season.

Prediction: K-State will win more games that it loses and play in the postseason for the seventh consecutive season. Ertz will finally get the chance to make his mark. Jones will churn toward a 1,000-yard season behind a remade offensive line. The defense will thrive, and K-State’s special teams will rate among the league’s best. But a tough road schedule, featuring games at Stanford, Oklahoma Baylor and TCU, will limit Kansas State to seven wins in the regular season. Give it eight after a bowl victory -- Snyder’s first since 2013.