The Kansas 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 examine the road games that the Jayhawks will face in their 2014 Big 12 schedule.
October 4 at West Virginia
Last year, the West Virginia Mountaineers had the unfortunate distinction of becoming the first Big 12 team to lose to Kansas since the Colorado Buffaloes in 2010. It was a tough 2013 season for the Mountaineers, finishing 4-8 overall with a mere 2 conference wins. The boys from Morgantown finished 7th and 9th in Big 12 scoring offense and scoring defense, respectively, and also finished the season as the third lowest ranked team (#76/125) from the Big 12 in Football Outsiders' F/+ rankings. They'll be returning 14 projected starters from last year's squad, however that does not include Charles Sims (drafted #69 overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in this year's NFL Draft), who was the centerpiece for the WVU offense. Quarterback play, as always, remains the most important part of today's game, and it was incredibly shaky for West Virginia last season. They head into this season with multiple contenders for the starting job, most notably Clint Trickett, who will start off as first on the depth chart after playing the most of any QB for WVU last season.
Defensively, West Virginia will need vast improvement over their 2013 campaign if they wish to be at all competitive in the Big 12 this season. After finishing dead last in pass defense in the Big 12 last season, and a barely more impressive eighth in rushing defense, the Mountaineers have more questions than answers. In fact, that's really a statement that applies to West Virginia as a whole this season. If there is one bright spot, Dana Holgorsen and company have a decent recruiting class coming in this season, ranked as the 38th best overall class by 247sports. While a positive step forward, this does very little to improve West Virginia in the immediate future, and the Mountaineers are looking at another difficult season in 2014. Kansas has not won a road game since Week 2 of 2009, West Virginia may be primed to break another Kansas losing streak.
October 18 at Texas Tech
Texas Tech is coming off of a solid season, finishing at 8-5 overall, 4-5 in the Big 12 with a win over Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl. Offensively, the Red Raiders were the most potent passing team in the Big 12 in 2013, throwing for 392.8 YPG, nearly 34 YPG higher than the Bryce Petty-led Baylor Bears last season. The run game was a much different story however, as Tech finished dead last in the conference with a mere 118.2 YPG on the ground. Despite the major disparity between passing and rushing success for Texas Tech in 2013, they were still second in the conference in total offense and also third in scoring offense. TTU will have eight projected starters returning on offense this coming season, including quarterback Davis Webb, which would normally be positive if it were not for the fact that he is the only quarterback on the roster at this point. Assuming he stays healthy and the Raiders are able to scrounge up some depth under center, they should be fine at quarterback and will continue to dominate through the air.
On the opposite side of the ball, things are not quite so peachy for Texas Tech. Finishing 7th in scoring defense in the Big 12 last year, the Red Raiders actually finished in the bottom half of the FBS (#69 to be exact) in the defensive F/+ rankings at the end of the season (for reference, they finished #20 in offense). With only four projected returning starters, Texas Tech has a lot of work to do on defense. In terms of how they match up with the Jayhawks, Texas Tech played poorly against the run in 2013, allowing 201.5 YPG on the ground, the part of the game that Kansas should be set up to succeed in the most with a stable of decent running backs and a dual-threat quarterback in Montell Cozart. As far as the passing game goes however, TTU is much more solid, allowing just 217.1 YGP in the air in 2013. If that this trend continues this year, and it is a major if with all of the new players on the Tech defense, a successful ground attack will be the only way to even compete in this game.
November 1 at Baylor
Bryce Petty returns to Waco to lead the Baylor Bears into 2014 after a disappointing end to the 2013 season, losing in the Fiesta Bowl to the Knights of Central Florida. Offensively, the Bears were amongst the best in the nation in 2013, leading all FBS teams with 52.4 PPG and 618.8 total YPG. The attack was led by the aforementioned Bryce Petty, who enters his (redshirt) junior season after finishing fourth in the FBS in passing yards in 2013, also amassing 32 touchdowns with a miniscule 3 interceptions, as well as 14 touchdowns on the ground. Needless to say, he is the focal point of the Baylor offense, and with good reason. He will not have 2013 Big 12 leading rusher Lache Seastrunk at his disposal out of the backfield this season, as he was drafted by the Washington Redskins in the sixth round of this year's NFL Draft (although the sixth leading rusher, Shock Linwood, back). In fact, Baylor will be without many starters from their 2013 team with only five starters returning on offense. Despite the turnover of talent in the starting lineup, the most important piece of the team is returning, and that is of course Bryce Petty.
The Bears were no slouches on the defensive side of the ball in 2013 either, finishing fourth in the Big 12 in scoring defense (allowing just 23.5 PPG) and also in total defense (the Bears gave up 360.3 YPG in 2013). Just like on the offense, Baylor will have a great deal of turnover this season on defense, as only four 2013 starters will be returning in 2014. Baylor boasted a strong pass rush last season, tying for third in the Big 12 with 32 total sacks, and also held opponents to converting on less than 34% of 3rd downs, 3rd best in conference. If the turnover margin remains a bright spot for the Bears (they were +13 for the season), Baylor's chances to repeat as Big 12 champs certainly won't be hurt. One flaw that must be corrected for the Bears this coming season is the number of penalties they commit. In 2013, they were worst in conference in terms of number of penalties and yards given up (120 and 1070, respectively). If KU had one positive thing to take away from their meeting in Lawrence against Baylor last season, it was that they held them to under their season average in points per game to that point (they were averaging over 64 PPG; Kansas held them to 59). It's clearly not saying much and the Jayhawks lost by 45. Despite the large number of new starters for this coming season, Art Briles' Baylor team is going to be a strong force in the Big 12 yet again (especially considering the Bears excel at home; they finished 8-1 in Waco in 2013).
November 22 at Oklahoma
It felt for a little while last year like Kansas might shock the world and upset Boomer Sooner in Memorial Stadium. Despite leading for nearly the entire first half and a great performance from James Sims (129 yards and 2 touchdowns), KU could not upset OU, falling by a final score of 34-19 (this was also the game in which Jake Heaps threw for just 16 yards). This season, Oklahoma will be (permanently) starting a new quarterback, as Trevor Knight, who played very well against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, takes over under center while Blake Bell transitions to Tight End. While Bell added a great deal to the Oklahoma rushing game which finished second in the conference based on yardage, it fell behind in the air, finishing second to last in the Big 12 with just 199.1 YPG, only besting the Jayhawks. Knight is looking to lead the Sooners offense to more a potent air attack, while remaining steady on the ground. Scoring was solid for Oklahoma in 2013, as they finished with an average of just under 33 PPG. Only five starters are returning for the Oklahoma offense, and that number does not include a running back and only one receiver. The Sooners may have a better passing quarterback starting off this season, but the key for them will be having options to move the ball down field, a problem Kansas fans are used to (when you look at the KU receivers, anyway).
Oklahoma's F/+ ranking for defense in 2013 was #24 overall, and that is backed up by the stats. Finishing second in the Big 12 in scoring defense (22.1 PPG) and first in total defense (350.2 YPG), Oklahoma was the class of the conference when it came to defense last season. Unlike the offense, OU has a majority of their starters returning from 2013 to 2014, 9 players to be exact. The return of all of those starters to an already solid defense, one which finished third in turnover margin and second in defensive third down percentage, makes the Sooners defense a force yet again. One potential area of concern could be special teams for the Sooners in 2014. While the return game was highly successful, the best in the Big 12 in terms of punt return yardage in fact, as well as a #37 F/+ special teams ranking, the punting game was not so successful. Finishing dead last in conference in net punt yardage, the coverage team needs to improve this season around returning punter Jed Barnett. Unfortunately for Oklahoma's opponents, the Sooners are a good team who will once again be in contention for the Big 12 title and punting does not look to be a huge roadblock for this contender.
November 29 at Kansas State
The rivalry between the Jayhawks and the Kansas State Wildcats has been fairly one sided in the last several years. And by fairly, I mean completely. With an average 44.4 PPG and an average margin of victory of 31.6 points, the Wildcats have owned the Jayhawks since 2009. They finished the season hot, winning their last two contests including the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against the Michigan Wolverines. Jake Waters returns to Manhattan, looking to build on a solid 2013. He'll have three starting receivers back this coming season, including Tyler Lockett, K-State's top receiver and all-around scoring threat. The Wildcats need to have a steady rushing game this season to compete in the Big 12 this season. The passing game should be improved with more experience amongst the starting lineup and another year between Waters and Lockett, but for a team that finished 4th in the conference with 178 YPG on the ground yet lost their best rushing threat, they'll need to be able to rely on a younger crop of backs to move the chains this year.
Last season the Wildcats had a seemingly solid defensive presence, with an F/+ ranking of #43, finishing third in conference in total defense and scoring defense. Defensively, the K-State have four returning starters from their 2013 squad, rendering a unit that was solid at a loss for starting experience. Fortunately, Bill Snyder has pretty much proven that he can work miracles, thus it would not be entirely surprising to see the lack of experience not hurt Kansas State as much as you would assume on paper. Basic statistics show a fine defensive unit that is going to need to maintain a level of performance this season, yet the deeper you dig, you see that K-State has more they need to work on. For example, the Wildcats had an even turnover margin last year, an aspect of defense that you need to be positive in to compete for a conference championship. They were also second worst in the Big 12, at 40.9%, at allowing third down conversions last season, another necessary improvement. The defense was decent last year but has plenty of room for improvement, and they must improve if they wish to compete for a title.
Next week we'll conclude our schedule preview series, as we take a look at KU's home conference opponents this season.