It’s reasonable for fans to have a believe-it-when-we-see-it approach to Kansas football. We’ve been burned before.
Previous 2-1 non-conference starts have offered a glimmer of hope and optimism before Kansas continuing as the punching bag of the Big 12. It happened last year with dominant wins over Central Michigan and Rutgers.
There are reasons to think this year might be different. For starters, a new coach who has rebuilt before and won at the highest level of the sport. The win against Boston College also felt different. It didn’t require forcing six turnovers—which is not a sustainable model—and wasn’t against a fellow bottom dweller of a program. KU won playing well-executed football and dominated an ACC program that had won seven games in five out of the previous six years and had beat fellow ACC squad Virginia Tech to start the season.
We don’t know if the team we saw on Friday in Boston is for real or if KU is closer to the team we saw the first two weeks. That could either have been the last win of the year or the beginning of KU exceeding expectations, even if the Jayhawks only win two more in conference play.
But it feels different.
The other thing that’s different is that Kansas enters conference play with a legitimate chance to win its opener.
Past good starts (2-1) to a season have transitioned into not great matchups to start the Big 12 (enter joke about no matchup being a good matchup for Kansas the last 10 years). Last year, Kansas had to take its two-game winning streak on the road to Waco to face a Baylor Bears team that went 7-6 and came within a touchdown in two other games (Texas and TCU). In 2014, the 2-1 Jayhawks faced a Texas team that finished 5-4 in the conference, and the year before that it was an 8-5 Texas Tech squad to open Big 12 play.
Maybe West Virginia ends the season in the same standing as some of those teams. But that’s not predicted. The Mountaineers were picked eighth in the Big 12 preseason poll and come to Lawrence as less-than-a-touchdown favorites. And thus far, WVU looks less impressive than K-State, which was ninth in the preseason.
A path is in front of the Jayhawks to take the next step. The season doesn’t hang in the balance of this outcome, but perception and confidence sure changes at 3-1 and 1-0 in the conference heading into a stretch of TCU, OU, and Texas, compared to sitting at 2-2 and 0-1. This matchup will help to not only understand if the events in Boston were the makings of a new normal, but also whether the Jayhawks are closing the gap between itself and the rest of the Big 12.
A game against Oklahoma this week wouldn’t tell us much. OU will steamroll the majority of teams it faces this year. But West Virginia will be a good barometer of Kansas’ growth, and an opportunity to pick up where it left off in Boston.
Saturday could help to answer what we’re thinking: is something different this year?