It’s late September, and just as we all expected, the Jayhawks are 3-0 and playing in front of a sellout crowd this weekend. The opponent, naturally, is an also-undefeated Duke Blue Devils squad. Sorry, but I refuse to take part in the “IN BASKETBALL, RIGHT? LOLOLOLOL” stuff. It’s two teams that don’t see much gridiron success facing off and looking to start 4-0. Let’s just enjoy it for what it is.
While Duke is also off to a 3-0 start, they’ve faced a bit easier schedule. The Devils are coming off a 49-20 trouncing of North Carolina A&T, which is roughly on par with what Kansas did to Tennessee Tech. Like Kansas, Duke’s other games came against one Power 5 school and one G5 school, with a 30-0 win over Temple (123rd in sp+) and 31-23 road win over Northwestern (99th in sp+). Duke themselves sit at 90th in that same ranking system. So while Kansas presents the best opponent Duke has faced this year, Duke is well below KU’s previous victims in West Virginia and Houston, both ranked in the 50s.
Duke’s offense hasn’t been astounding this year, but it’s likely the better unit for the team. Like Kansas, Duke has been getting it done with the run game this year, having carried the ball 105 times while throwing just 72, at 24 attempts per game. Their three leaders rushers are comprised of their two leading running backs in Jaylen Coleman and Jordan Waters, while supported by their sophomore QB Riley Leonard, a 6’4 signal caller who isn’t especially fast, but has been adept at reading defenses and is more agile than he looks. Respectively, the three have 177, 174, and 147 rushing yards this year. The Kansas defense will be defending the run more often than not, and when they do, they’ll have to maintain gap integrity and pay attention to multiple options in the backfield. Duke isn’t an option offense per se, but like Kansas, they have seen some success using option-style playcalling.
Though Duke likes to run, they haven’t been bad when throwing the ball. Leonard is 48-66 (73%) for 723 yards, good for a fantastic 11 yards per attempt. He’s thrown just two picks to five touchdowns, and has a QB rating of 183.7. Granted, he hasn’t thrown the ball against a good defense yet, but to be fair, he won’t be going against a good defense Saturday, either. Despite KU’s overall progress, they’ve only barely cracked the top 100 defenses in college football per sp+, and in both the last two games, have allowed opponents to build quick leads with a combination of miscues and just poor overall play. They’ve been able to recover and end up with enough stops to allow the offense to outscore West Virginia and Houston, but it would be nice to get a few early stops against Duke and stop putting so much pressure on the offense, which has seen massive improvement since last year. Duke has three receivers averaging at least 16.5 yards/catch in seniors Jalon Calhoun and Eli Pancol, along with freshman Sahmir Hagans, who’s caught just four balls but taken them 102 yards.
Forever the skeptic, I haven’t picked a Kansas win since week one against Tennessee Tech. I think victory at Memorial Stadium Saturday is far from guaranteed, but I think Kansas can manage Duke, as long as the defense avoids getting gashed early and often. Duke’s soft schedule makes it tough to gauge whether the team is as explosive as some of their early numbers seem, but at the very least it’s clear they are capable of putting up both yards and points, averaging 456 yards per game, and 7.8 per play. That, combined with my continuing concerns about the Kansas defense, is going to keep me from going too crazy with my prediction. I think this may look more like the shootout against West Virginia than we’d like it to, but I think the team in blue (Jayhawk blue, that is) will show out in front of a big time crowd, and demand the AP voters slot them in the top 25 with a 4-0 start.
Kansas 42, Duke 34 (I continue to be proven right in betting the over with this team, with the caveat that you should not listen to me when making bets)