- Jake Trotter, ESPN Staff Writer
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Today, we break down Kansas State -- the Big 12’s defending champs:
KANSAS STATE WILDCATS
Coach: Bill Snyder (170-85-1 overall, 21 seasons; 170-85-1 at Kansas State, 21 seasons)
2012 record: 11-2 (8-1 Big 12)
Key losses: QB Collin Klein, WR Chris Harper, TE Travis Tannahill, DE Meshak Williams, DE Adam Davis, DT Vai Lutui, LB Arthur Brown, K Anthony Cantele
Newcomer to watch: Snyder built Kansas State up with the help of junior college players, and quarterback Jake Waters could be next in a long line of transfers to enjoy success in Manhattan. Waters, the No. 1 junior college quarterback recruit in the country, is battling Daniel Sams to succeed Heisman Trophy finalist Klein.
Biggest games in 2013: The Wildcats have won five in a row against Texas, and if they make it six on Sept. 21 in Austin, they’ll be a dark horse contender (again) for the Big 12 title. If K-State sticks in the conference race, a Nov. 23 clash with Oklahoma will loom large.
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: While seemingly everyone in the Big 12 has tried to win by outscoring the opposition, K-State has gotten things done lately by playing tough defense, especially in the trenches. The Wildcats, however, don’t have a single full-time returning starter on the defensive line or linebacker. Replacing key parts like defensive end Meshak Williams and linebacker Arthur Brown won’t be a easy.
Snyder will attempt to rebuild his front seven around linebacker Tre Walker, who played only eight games last season because of a knee injury, but has been solid when healthy.
Snyder-coached defenses are always going to be sound. But whether the Wildcats are anything more depends on if enough other guys emerge up front.
Forecast: Yes, Kansas State must replace the Big 12’s offensive and defensive players of the year in Klein and Brown. Yes, only two starters return defensively. And yes, on paper, several other Big 12 teams look like they’ll be better than the Wildcats.
But anyone discounting Snyder’s bunch deserves a history lesson. The Wildcats were picked to finish sixth in the preseason last year and won the league. They were picked eighth the year before and finished 10-3. So K-State should feel right at home being picked sixth this preseason.
Even without Klein, the offense has a chance to be more productive. The Wildcats return four offensive linemen, including All-Big 12 tackle Lucas. Leading rusher Hubert is also back, as are diminutive playmaking receiver-returners Locket and Thompson.
Quarterback, of course, will be the key. Klein was the difference-maker last season, propelling K-State to its upset at Oklahoma early in the season and into the driver’s seat of the Big 12 title race. To remain a Big 12 contender, the Wildcats will need another difference-making quarterback, especially with the defense in full rebuilding mode.
Sams backed up Klein last year and has an intriguing skill set with his ability to scramble. When Klein got injured against Oklahoma State, Sams played well in relief, completing five of six passes while rushing for 20 yards.
Sams’ ability to pass consistently, however, is in question; Waters’ is not.
The reigning NJCAA Offensive Player of the Year, Waters set a junior college record last season with a 73.3 completion percentage. He also threw 39 touchdowns to just three interceptions, including none the final seven games. Waters is a winner, too, having captured two Iowa high school state championships before quarterbacking Iowa Western to the NJCAA national title. The only real red flag is that he hasn't played a game at the FBS level.
"A young guy down in College Station came on the scene, and nobody had a clue that he was going to get himself on the field,” Snyder said, referring to Johnny Manziel. “And ended up winning a Heisman. You just never really know."
Chances of Waters -- or Sams -- becoming the next Manziel are beyond slim. But if Snyder finds another winner at quarterback, the Wildcats could surprise -- yet again.