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Game One Preview: Rhode Island at Kansas

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Let’s get the season started by taking an in depth look at the week one matchup

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The moment Kansas fans have spent months waiting for is finally here: the beginning of football season! I’ll be handling previews for our opponents this year, and the FCS opponent preview is always the toughest. It’s week one, so there are no stats to work with, and there’s generally less coverage for FCS teams anyway. Still, we’ll give it our best shot. If you want some information directly from an informed source, you can also check out my Q&A with Rhody Rampage’s Dave Ascoli, which posted this morning.

Rhode Island background:

Most of us know by now that URI went just 1-10 last year playing in the FCS, but what you may not know is that it was hardly an outlier. Jim Fleming is in his third year of coaching the Rams, and has just a 2-21 record so far. The two wins were a 13-7 home victory over Towson in the final game of 2014, and a 20-0 victory over Delaware last year. The two FBS opponents they’ve played during that time were Syracuse and Marshall, who beat them by a combined score of 89-7. This is a struggling program with 28 new players on its roster this year. There is some reason for optimism, as URI was ranked as having the top recruiting class in the Colonial Athletic Conference this past year by 247 Sports, but that’s unlikely to provide immediate help.

Rhode Island’s offense:

The Rams’ offensive numbers have been brutal in recent years. In 2015, their highest point total was 21, and it came in a season ending 38-21 loss to Towson, the lone team they’d beaten the year before. They ended up averaging just 13.2 points per game, which was actually an improvement over the 12.5 they averaged in Fleming’s first year. They rushed for under 100 yards per game, and passed for fewer than 150. For reference, Kansas, one of the worst offenses in FBS last year, put up better numbers even against Big 12 competition.

The Rams will run a pretty traditional modern spread offense, with some speed at both the quarterback position and running back Harold Cooper, who was praised by both Ascoli in my Q&A, and URI’s play-by-play announcer in a recent interview with KU Athletics. Look for the speed option, short throws, designed quarterback runs, and a lot of scrambling if Kansas leaves open space in front of QB Wesley McKoy.

Rhode Island’s defense:

The Rams gave up 30 points per game on offense last year, which isn’t great but could be worse. Ascoli noted that they have a strong, experience group of linebackers, but he and others seem concerned about an undersized defensive line that produced only ten sacks in 11 games last season. They only gave up 210 passing yards per game, but it appears that may be due to the fact that teams simply didn’t have to air it out against them, as URI gave up nearly 200/game on the ground. Though Beaty wants to throw the ball more this year, he may save some of the regular season playbook in this one and stick with more of a balanced attack, as it shouldn’t be tough to get into the back of the front seven against this group.

Rhode Island overall:

Jeff Sagarin’s ratings are among the only ones that attempt to rank FCS teams along with FBS teams, and he had Rhode Island 224th last year. He also had Kansas 156th. He has the gap in ratings between the two as roughly equal to the difference between Kansas and Vanderbilt or Kentucky, going in the other direction. However, Kansas’ returning production this year, among the best in the country, gives them a preseason rating of 106th by Sagarin, compared to just 220th for Rhode Island. Preseason metric rankings are always iffy, but this difference would be comparable to Kansas playing against Arizona State.

It should be noted that while URI’s stats and record were terrible last year, they played in a decent conference (Sagarin had the Colonial ranked as the 4th best FCS conference), and found themselves in a number of close games. After losing their first three by a combined score of 113-17, they tightened things up. They lost their next to by 10 apiece, and beat Delaware after that. They also came within 3 points on the road against New Hampshire. It sounds a lot like what we’ve seen in recent years at Kansas. Embarrassing blowouts with some competitive games and the rare elusive win mixed in.

Prediction:

I won’t include weekly score predictions in these previews, since we cover those in another weekly post, but I’ll give you a bit of a narrative prediction on how I see this playing out.

I expect a vanilla game plan out of Kansas. Beaty seems conservative by nature and I don’t see him throwing the entire playbook at a weak FCS team in game one. Though Beaty says he intends to run more of a true pass-happy air raid this year, I think we’ll see plenty of Ke’aun Kinner, Denzell Evans and Taylor Martin in the backfield. By all accounts, URI has a weak defensive line, and there should be room for KU’s backs to run. Linebacker may be a strength for Rhode Island, but I can’t imagine they’ll stick to their 4-3 base against a Kansas team that will likely split four out wide more often than not. I mean, I’d love to see LaQuivionte Gonzalez matched up with an FCS linebacker, but I doubt URI’s coaches will let that happen. They’ll either need to take out one of their better defenders to get an extra DB in there, or move to a 3 man defensive front, which likely all but eliminates any semblance of a pass rush for them.

Since the Rams’ offense has been non-existent under Fleming, there shouldn’t be much need to take defensive risks, either. You may recall that KU had to restructure their entire defensive gameplan to try and stop South Dakota State’s 6’4 receiver Jake Wienecke, who racked up most of his 160 receiving yards in the first 20 minutes of their game. Rhode Island doesn’t have a game-changer like that, and even though Harold Cooper, preseason third team all-conference running back, is a good athlete, our own mikeville noted last week that URI averaged just seven inches per carry in the 2015 season opener against Syracuse.

So in all, I don’t expect an exciting game. Kansas should be able to work the ball downfield with relative ease, but in Beaty’s first game calling the plays, likely sticking to a basic playbook, I don’t expect yards in bunches. I think that will keep the score low, and I’ll be surprised if the Jayhawks get much more than 40. Though the Rams won’t have a potent offense, I’ve seen running QBs annoyingly keep drives alive against Kansas many times in recent years, so that may lead to some extra time of possession, and maybe an extra field goal or two, for Rhode Island.

By the end of the night, there’s little doubt in my mind that Kansas will be 1-0. There isn’t a team in FBS that wouldn’t be favored to beat Rhode Island by a healthy margin, and last year’s abysmal Kansas team very nearly pulled off a comeback in a shootout against one of FCS’s better teams, in what was the first D1 football game experience for much of the Jayhawks’ roster. Because I think we’ll see some extended drives, (and probably some mistakes by a still-young Kansas team), I’m not expecting KU to beat the 29 point spread that keeps circulating on the internet, but I don’t look for many nervous moments.

I hope to see some of you at the game tomorrow night!