It’s officially game week! Time to take a look at some questions burning deep down inside you, maybe so deep that you didn’t even know you had them. We’ll try to avoid the obvious and cliché questions, or questions that nobody really knows the answer to. (Ok, there’s one that we don’t really know the answer to. Apologies.)
Anyway, let’s roll.
What’s the most important game on the schedule?
We’ll start with the easiest question first, and the answer is, the first one. South Dakota is not some powerhouse FCS squad. They’re not even receiving votes in any preseason poll that I have found. This is a squad that any D1 team, even one in KU’s current situation, should be able to handle. That said, the Coyotes were picked to finish 8th in the 11-team Missouri Valley in the preseason poll, but note that there are six (!) top-25 ranked teams ahead of them.
Still, the oddsmakers agree: The Jayhawks are currently a 15.5-point favorite over the Coyotes. That’s a number similar to Ohio State at Minnesota this weekend, or Western Michigan at Michigan.
I don’t think we’ll see a 55-6 game like 2016 Rhode Island, but on the flip side, if it’s a repeat of 2019 Indiana State, then I’m going to lose any optimism I have for the rest of the season. Kansas needs to come out, establish its offensive identity, control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, and win a game fairly comfortably by two or more touchdowns. Getting some early confidence going into the season, I think, is key for this squad and for the culture that Leipold is trying to build here.
What are the most winnable games on the schedule?
Outside of the opener against South Dakota (78%), per S&P+ the most winnable games on KU’s schedule are: @ Duke (34%), vs Tech (23%), vs KSU (21%), and vs Baylor (16%). The Jayhawks are given less than a 10% chance to win any other game on their schedule. So, the numbers say the odds are that KU will cover over 1.5 wins on the season. The odds also say there’s less than a half-percent chance that KU wins all four of those games.
So, go ahead and dream about being 5-6 going into Thanksgiving weekend and having a shot a bowl game if we can beat West Virginia (9%). Just don’t bet on it.
What freshman is poised to make the greatest impact in 2021?
The easy answer is RB Devin Neal, who joins a quality group of ball carriers but should be given every opportunity to become KU’s leading rusher this year. Neal comes to KU more highly rated than Pooka Williams was out of high school, but he’ll have plenty of competition for carries in a loaded KU backfield.
I’ll also give you a couple of sleepers to keep an eye on as well, both in the secondary: O.J. Burroughs and Jayson Gilliom. JaCobee Bryant is a name, too, but that is kind of cheating on my part since he was a member of the 2020 class (but still classified as a freshman).
How will progress be defined in 2021?
For literally the 10th year in a row, the easy answer is: Competitiveness. Because, yet again, progress is unlikely to manifest in the win column for KU this year. However, that may not be the best answer, at least for this season. As we ourselves have experienced, it takes time to build a program. Mark Mangino lost 9 games by double digits in his first season in Lawrence, including to UNLV and Bowling Green - not exactly powerhouse G5 programs. Last year, KU only had one game in single digits.
Now, Leipold comes in - after spring practice has concluded - and has had just the four summer months along with four weeks of fall camp to prepare for the season. So while we’d like the answer to be competitiveness on the field, even that may be unreasonable in year 1 of this new coach considering the situation surrounding his hire. The right answer may be more abstract things like discipline, preparedness, establishing culture, etc. Particularly when you factor in the strength of the Big 12 this year, things could get ugly
Who will be the starting quarterback?
This is the one we don’t really know the answer to. Out of the available options, I think I speak for most of us when I say, I’d like for it to be Jason Bean. Rumors coming out of fall camp indicate that he got a lot of run with the 1s last week, which is a good sign for those of us who aren’t interested in going through the Kendrick-Daniels shenanigans again.
Coaches have been consistent in saying that they will go with the most consistent option, i.e., the guy who doesn’t turn the ball over, understands the playbook, makes the right reads. Obviously, the key is consistency, but I’ll add one more layer: it would be nice to see a head coach at Kansas pick a quarterback and stick with him.