Sunday, June 26, 2011

Big 12 college football countdown: Kansas

With 10 weeks to go until the college football season, I thought I'd count down by going through the 10 Big 12 teams (I know, those last five words make no sense). Going in reverse order of Phil Steele's projected order of finish (I'll make my own picks later), I'll take a quick look at each program, their best-ever player and their 2011 outlook. We start with Kansas. No guarantees I can keep this up all the way to Oklahoma.

The Program

To put it charitably, the Kansas football program does not have a rich tradition of success. They do, however, own a winning record all-time (571-559-58, .505). Oh, and they have the NCAA record for most ties ever (57), which may be the most unbreakable record in sports since we play overtime now.

Kansas has won or shared eight conference titles, but the last was in 1968. They last won an outright conference title in 1930. The achievement Kansas fans probably are most proud of is that they have largely battled Missouri to a draw in their fierce Border War rivalry. Kansas claims a 55-55-9 series tie (on-the-field results), Mizzou says it leads 56-54-9 (factoring in 1960 KU forfeit).

Kansas plays home games at its Memorial Stadium, the seventh-oldest college football stadium in use (opened in 1921). The KU football experience, though not long on winning, has its traditions: trudging up Mount Oread to games, the haunting "Rock Chalk" chant/cheer, the waving of the wheat.

Kansas briefly rose to prominence in 2007 when the schedule (no Oklahoma or Texas), turnovers (+21 for the year) and some good fortune (only three total starts lost to injury) helped them get to 11-0 before MU defeated them in the epic 2007 Border War game. They won the Orange Bowl that year, but have settled back to the bottom since. Kansas entered the 2007 game with Missouri with seven conference wins on the season; they have not won seven Big 12 games since (6-19).

Best Jayhawk ever

Kansas has had some great players through the years (John Riggins, Dana Stubblefied), but for my money, Gale Sayers was the best Jayhawk ever. "The Kansas Comet" ran for 2,675 yards and gained 3,917 all-purpose yards in his brilliant career. He was a breathtaking open-field runner, recording a 99-yard run in 1963 against Nebraska. As a senior, he helped Kansas upset Oklahoma 15-14 with a 96-yard kickoff return. And, given his NFL success and the movies about him and Brian Piccolo, he's clearly the most famous Jayhawk football player as well.

2011 Outlook

Last year, the Turner Gill era at Kansas began with a stunning 6-3 loss to FCS team North Dakota State, and that kind of set the tone for Kansas’ disastrous 2010 season.

The Jayhawks went 3-9 overall and 1-7 in Big 12 play. Kansas has now lost 14 of its last 15 conference games, with the lone win coming against Colorado last fall, a game in which Kansas needed a historic rally and a CU choke for the ages to erase a 45-17 fourth quarter deficit.

In every other conference game, Kansas lost by at least 12 points. Other than the Colorado game that was very nearly a rout, the Jayhawks were only mildly competitive in one other game, hanging with Iowa State before collapsing in the second half.

Kansas was outgained by 219.4 yards per game in Big 12 play. The next worst team in the league was outgained by 97.9 yards per game. No Big 12 team in the last three years has come within 68 yards per game of being outgained by that much in conference play.

So, yeah, it was bad. To make it worse, Kansas lost more letterman and is returning fewer lettermen than any other Big 12 school. But they are not utterly without hope. They bring back 15 starters. Most of all, this is now the second year in Gill’s system, which has to help at least somewhat. Former coach Mark Mangino left the program without much talent, and Gill is trying to build it up.

Kansas will need their running backs to elevate the team if they are to even be competitive. Leading the way is James Sims, who ran from over 100 yards in all 3 of Kansas’ wins last year. Sims ran for 742 yards as a true freshmen in 2010. Shockingly, he only lost seven yards total all year, so dropping him in the backfield is a rare feat indeed.

Quarterback, as you may have noticed, is kind of an important position, and Kansas is trotting out true freshman Brock Berglund (the likely starter), sophomore Jordan Webb and Quinn Mecham to compete for the starting job. Starting a true freshman on an already bad team is risky, but Berglund has the highest upside.

Defensively… eh. Senior linebacker Steven Johnson might record 100 tackles. But other than him it’s a pretty underwhelming group.

The big question: Can they win a conference game? It took a miracle on Mount Oread last year to win one, and they barely hung on against Iowa State for their one league win in 2009. They’ve lost 10 straight conference road games. Still, with nine tries, I think they could get one conference win. I mean, wouldn’t turnovers alone win a game for them? They play Texas Tech on Oct. 1 in their Homecoming game to open Big 12 play. Better get it then. If not, other chances would be home vs. Kansas State, at Iowa State or home vs. Baylor. Topping last year's overall win total of three seems unlikely with this schedule.

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