The Jayhawks are coming off of a season in which they had two more wins than they did in Charlie Weis' first season, however they still finished last in the Big 12 standings. This year, KU is looking to continue the improvement, and a lot of that hinges on who they play and where. Today, we take a look at the first segment of the KU football schedule, the non-conference games, and we see how the Jayhawks stack up against the opponents.
September 6: Home vs. Southeast Missouri State (FCS)
Kansas has won their last three games against FCS opponents, last losing in 2010 to North Dakota State. This past season, KU defeated South Dakota at home. To lead off this season, the Redhawks of Southeast Missouri State come to Memorial Stadium, looking to shock the world, so to speak, by knocking off an FBS opponent. It happens from time to time, including eventual National Champion NDSU upsetting Kansas State last season, as well as Georgia Southern stunning Florida. But SEMO is coming off of a three-win season, winning just two games in the Ohio Valley Conference and another win over a Division II school. The Jayhawks are facing a weak FCS opponent for the second consecutive year, as last year's opponent, South Dakota, finished only 4-8 with a 3-5 record in the Missouri Valley Conference. Based solely upon their recent performance against other sub-par FCS teams, the Jayhawks should not struggle too much with the Redhawks.
September 13: Away vs. Duke
It's a tough time to have Duke on the non-conference schedule. Coming off of a birth in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl against Texas A&M and their first season finishing ranked in the Coaches Poll since 1962, the Blue Devils are on the rise. By comparing these teams solely on last season's statistics, Duke should win this one handily. In 2013, Duke scored more than double as many points per game than Kansas scored. Defensively, they gave up just slightly over five points less per game than the Jayhawks (26.6 per game for the Blue Devils, 31.8 per game for the Jayhawks). Now, of course things can change year to year, but Duke is returning 14 starters from their 2013 team, whereas KU returns 19, however amongst the players not returning include quarterback Jake Heaps and top play-maker and star running back James Sims on the offense. The Jayhawks will be entering their first road game of the year with fairly inexperienced Montell Cozart lining up behind center, and while he will have decent options to throw to, including the ever-exciting Tony Pierson, but the odds are stacked against him in terms of stigma and pure talent.
The Kansas Jayhawks have not won a road game since defeating UTEP in Spetember of 2009. By the time KU takes the field in Durham, it will have been 1,837 days since the Jayhawks won a game on the road. If the Jayhawks have anything going for them, it's the fact that all-time they are undefeated against Duke; they won 44-16 in 2009. There will be opportunity to win a road game later this season for the Jayhawks (Looking to win a second straight game against West Virginia), but it does not seem to be likely against a more skilled team like Duke. Experience counts for something, but talent counts for sure as well.
September 20: Home vs. Central Michigan
The Jayhawks are looking to repeat their success of Family Weekend 2013 this coming season. Last year, KU defeated Louisiana Tech 13-10 to win their first game against an FBS team since 2010, thanks to a late touchdown pass from Jake Heaps to Jimmay Mundine and a game-ending 52-yard field goal by Matthew Wyman. The difference between playing Louisiana Tech last season and Central Michigan this season is that Louisiana Tech was a mediocre team in a mediocre mid-major conference (Conference USA). Central Michigan is a decent team in a better, nearly major football conference (The MAC). The Chippewas will be returning 16 starters next season, 7 of whom on an offense that finished 97th in the FBS in scoring. Defensively, they did finish slightly better, allowing 28.6 points per game, good for 74th in the FBS (by comparison, KU was ranked 121st offensively and 94th defensively in 2013).
The key to this game, and really the whole season, will be the development and quality of play by Montell Cozart. Jake Heaps, who just transferred to Miami (FL), had a rough season in 2013, completing just 49% of his passes, with only 8 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Cozart's numbers were even worse by comparison, however he was used more as a situational and running quarterback. His success is going to determine the success of the team to a degree. Central Michigan is a team whose defense is vulnerable, especially on the ground, where Cozart can definitely perform at his finest, especially with the help of Tony Pierson and 4-star recruit Traevohn Wrench. The Jayhawks' game against the Chippewas will be a key point this season in determining where Kansas is headed with Cozart at the helm.
Coming up next week: Part 2 of the schedule outlook, when we take a look at the road games the Jayhawks face this year in the Big XII.