With the season less than two weeks away at this point, it’s time to take a reasoned look at the expectations for this year’s version of Kansas football by answering questions about the Jayhawks that you never even knew you had.
In an offseason full of changes, what’s the biggest change between last year and this year?
This may be the easiest question of them all. The answer is clearly Les Miles, because the change at head coach has affected... everything. The offensive and defensive coordinators are different as well, but that’s because of Miles. Recruiting is up. Enthusiasm abounds, and it’s not just lip service or coach speak. Unlike his predecessor, Miles is a proven winner and a proven program builder, and he’ll look to recapture that magic one final time in his career.
The days of calling timeout on fourth-and-1 from midfield and then punting are gone. Or at least, they better be.
Who is the most important player on offense?
For most college football teams, the answer is “the quarterback.” That’s probably the right answer, but in this case you might as well immediately point to Pooka Williams. If Pooka goes down or can’t play for whatever reason, Kansas has capable replacements, although they aren’t gamebreakers like Pooka.
Having Pooka in the backfield will help keep opposing defenses honest, which will have ripple effects throughout the offense, from the offensive line to the wide receivers.
Who is the most important player on defense?
Now we’re getting into more difficult questions. Kansas is breaking in seven new starters on defense - the entire front seven, in fact. The Jayhawks are also switching from Clint Bowen’s 4-2-5 to DJ Eliot’s 3-4 scheme. The secondary will be somewhere between good and great with guys like Mike Lee, Corione Harris, and Hasan Defense leading the way. But considering the change in scheme, I’m gonna throw you a curve ball.
For me, the most important player is whoever ends up at the starting DT position. The most likely starter is incoming Juco transfer Caleb Sampson, but Jelani Brown, Da’Jon Terry, and Sam Burt are also no doubt in the mix. Kansas will have to find a way soak up blockers to free up the linebackers to make plays, making DT the most important player on this defense.
What is the most important game on the schedule?
Les Miles famously knocked off top-5 Oklahoma teams in his first two years in Stillwater. However, I think I’d be laughed off the internet if I called OU the biggest game of the season. The way I see it, there are three options here.
1) Indiana State. Yes, the season opener. Remember that David Beaty went just 2-2 against FCS programs. If this is a close game or heaven forbid Kansas loses, stick a fork in the rest of the season. Any and all momentum built up during the offseason will vanish much more quickly than it materialized.
2) Coastal Carolina. See Indiana State above. Yes, the Chanticleers return a deep and experienced roster. But Kansas should still have advantages in coaching, training, and recruiting, not to mention home field. With these two schools being similarly ranked by sources like S&P+ and Athlon, this should give us a great indication of what Les Miles has in Lawrence for year one.
3) Kansas State. As mentioned earlier, Les Miles knocked off OU, his in-state rival, the first two years he was in Stillwater early in his career. KSU is breaking in a new coach as well, and historically, whenever K-State has faced KU without Bill Snyder, it hasn’t gone well for the purple. If KU can turn back the tide in this rivalry matchup, it will energize the fan base (and donation base!) even more than the hiring of Les Miles did.
Do the Jayhawks have any shot at a bowl game?
Well... No. I mean... probably not. Look, KU has some winnable games on the schedule. They really do. Most of them are even at home. And sure, anything is possible in college football. Sometimes, Troy Aikman loses to Kansas. But not very often.
Winnable games include Indiana State, Coastal Carolina, Boston College, West Virginia, TCU, Texas Tech, and K-State. All of those except BC and TCU are in Lawrence. However, it seems foolish to predict a 7-5 season. Heck, it even seems foolish to predict 5-7.
Kansas hasn’t won a road game against a P5 team since 2008. Yes, things are different in Lawrence this year. But it’s awfully difficult to turn around a college football team in year one, especially considering where Les Miles is starting. Even Nick Saban went 6-6 his first year at Alabama, losing to Louisana-Monroe that first year. Putting your mark on a program takes at least a year, and sometimes two or three.
The most likely outcome is a 3-9 campaign. If Kansas can win its first two games and then pick off a Big 12 opponent at home - most likely one of Tech, WVU, or KSU - then that would constitute a successful season for Les Miles Year One. Anything higher than three wins is icing on the cake, and anything less than two wins would be disappointing. Again.