With each week, the excitement around Kansas football has ratcheted up, with the feeling that each game brings the potential for a new accomplishment. In week one, Kansas dismantled Tennessee Tech the way a Big 12 team should take care of a weak FCS opponent. It was the best way you could start the season. The next week was a chance to build on what seemed like continued improvement from the end of last year, and maybe steal a road conference win for a second straight year. The Jayhawks squeaked out an OT win over West Virginia and were off and running. The next roadblock was a road game against a Houston team that started the season ranked. The Jayhawks hadn’t started a season 3-0 since 2009. Could they possibly do it this year, with two of the wins on the road? The answer was yes, as Kansas put away Houston in the 4th quarter on a rainy afternoon. Then, fans sold out Memorial Stadium in Lawrence to see if Kansas could do the unthinkable, and win not just four games in a season for the first time, again, since 2009, but win them all in a row to start the year. Once again, they rose to the challenge, beating Duke and climbing to within one spot of being ranked in the AP Top 25, and two spots out in the Coaches’ Poll.
It felt like Kansas had earned that little 25 next to their name already, but perhaps it’s for the best to have that little bit of potential respect still hanging in front of them. This week they welcome Iowa State to Lawrence, and while the Hawkeyes aren’t ranked (#iykyk), they are, under Matt Campbell, essentially what Kansas hopes to become. Iowa State wasn’t in much better shape than pre-Leipold Kansas when Campbell arrived in Ames, but he quickly got them climbing the ladder to respectability. While Kansas may not make a Big 12 Title Game like ISU has, what Campbell has accomplished in his time at Iowa State serves as a model for what Leipold is trying to do with Kansas, a fact that Leipold himself has acknowledged.
While a spot int he Top 25 ultimately doesn’t change anything for Kansas, that number next to their name in the box score is a sign that they’ve earned the respect of some of those who follow the game as closely as anyone (ideally, at least). What they’ve done so far probably should have given them that number, but there’s no question that beating a program that’s won seven or more games in five straight years, making a bowl game each time, will absolutely earn them the number, while simultaneously signaling to the Big 12 that Kansas is not only out of the conference cellar, but a team that every single opponent, even in places like Norman and Stillwater, will have to take seriously.
But what about Iowa State this year? The Hawkeyes sit at 3-1, with their lone loss coming at home last week to 17th ranked Baylor. ISU lost 31-24, making their, uh, gritty 10-7 win over the other Iowa school, whatever they’re called, the most impressive victory of the season for them so far. As always, I’ll look to analytics to parse just how good ISU has been overall. ESPN’s sp+, courtesy of Bill Connelly, ranks Iowa State 31st nationally, making them KU’s toughest opponent to date by a wide margin (the toughest team they’ve played so far is Houston, 60th by those same rankings). Don’t let the fact that ISU has yet to do anything particularly impressive so far fool you: Campbell still has a solid program rolling there, with the 26th ranked defense and 49th ranked offense. Kansas has shown a propensity to let even mediocre offenses score some points on them this year, so to me the main question is whether KU’s offense, coincidentally ranked 26th by sp+, will score enough on a stingy defense to end up on the winning end. Yes, that is just a fancy way of saying “will Kansas be able to score more points than the other team?”
ISU is allowing a fantastic 4.4 yards per play, though they had the advantage of playing Iowa, a team taking college football offense back to the 1930s. Their 5.6 yards per play on the offensive side is respectable but not explosive. That’s a good sign, because KU has a propensity to allow explosive plays, though they’ve overcome it in each game so far. They throw it slightly more than they run it (147 passes to 136 carries), which makes sense given their very weak rushing numbers, averaging just under 4 yards per carry. Sophomore QB Hunter Dekkers leads the passing game, completing 72% of his passes so far, averaging a respectable 7.3 yards/attempt, racking up 1,029 yards with 10 TDs, but 5 picks. Kansas hasn’t been great at shutting down opposing passers, so this might be a game that hinges on taking advantage of Dekker’s tendency to turn the ball over a bit so far. Dekkers has just 10 rushing yards this year, so he isn’t likely to do much damage with his feet. I looked for defensive players to highlight, and while ISU undoubtedly has good players on that side of the ball, no one jumps out as having incredible individual numbers. But the results speak for themselves, given their sp+ ranking, the low yardage allowed, and not giving up more than 10 points in any game until last week’s loss to Baylor
The line on this is favoring ISU by about 3-3.5, depending on where you look. It’s a testament to how far Kansas has already come since the Jayhawk, even at home, would have been a healthy underdog to a team of Iowa State’s quality in any of the last five seasons. I picked against Kansas ahead of both the West Virginia and Houston games, and once again, I’m asking them to prove me wrong. KU’s offense has looked otherworldly this year, but I question whether they can keep anything close to that pace now that they’re starting to play respectable defensive teams. Meanwhile ISU’s offense doesn’t scare me, but even non-threatening offenses are likely to have their moments against the Jayhawk defense. A win would be a huge statement that would no doubt catapult them into the world of college football rankings, but I’m just not sure we’ll see it. I think the offense can keep this close, but ultimately I see Kansas as 4-1 when this one ends.
Iowa State 34, Kansas 30