In most years, we see the Jayhawks face three non-conference opponents before we see how they stack up against the Big 12. Not so this year, as a scheduling shake-up has the team traveling to Morgantown to test themselves against West Virginia, with only a big win over a cupcake FCS opponent under their belt in 2022.
The Mountaineers had a very different experience in week one. While KU roasted Tennessee Tech at home, West Virginia had to go on the road to face the 17th ranked Pittsburgh Panthers. With only one data point to reference, it’s hard to answer a lot of questions based on that single game. Is Pitt really a top 20 team? Will their 38-31 defeat end up looking embarrassing or impressive when all is said and done? We really don’t know. What we do know is that Pitt, at the very least, is no cupcake, and West Virginia went on the road, against their biggest rival, and held a late lead until a couple of bad breaks went the Panthers’ way and handed the Mountaineers a defeat. If we’re solely looking at what WV has done on the field in their 60 minutes of play, it’s hard not to see them as, at the very least, a pretty competitive football team.
I like turning to analytics to answer these types of questions, and in college football, my favorite source for this is ESPN’s Bill Connelly. His sp+ ratings are as accurate as anyone out there. If you look at sp+’s read on this game, there’s both good and bad from a Jayhawk perspective. The good is that while Kansas ranks 84th in FBS in these rankings and is 10th in the Big 12, West Virginia is the next worst league opponent, coming in at only 62nd. These ratings suggest West Virginia is not a worldbeater by any means, and may be the most similar team in the conference to Kansas, from an overall quality perspective. The bad is that even with the above being true, the gulf between them is still large enough that sp+ sees West Virginia as a 12 point favorite this weekend in Morgantown.
If you don’t know much about the West Virginia roster, quarterback JT Daniels is the best place to start. Once a 5 star recruit, who’s worn both a Georgia and USC uniform, he came to West Virginia for his 5th year of eligibility. As a freshman at USC he earned a starting job out of the gate, but after putting up mediocre numbers, he would lose his starting job for his sophomore season. He then transferred to Georgia and saw only sporadic action under center in 2020 and 2021, including earning a ring as the Bulldogs’ backup quarterback during their title campaign last year. With his eyes set on finishing his career as an unquestioned starter, he came to West Virginia. His first contest in blue and yellow or whatever West Virginia officially calls their colors was...just kind of ok. He was 23-40 for 57.5% with 214 yards, 2 TDs and one pick. To be fair, the pick was the result of a ball that just happened to bounce off his receiver’s fingertips directly into the hands of a Pittsburgh safety, which also all but gave the game to Pitt. Still, that comes to 5.4 yards/attempt, and 5.2 adjusted yards/attempt. If Bill Connelly’s assessment of Pittsburgh is accurate (31st team overall, with the 69th rated defense), these numbers aren’t at all impressive and would suggest there was a good reason Daniels never found success at the big name schools where he spent the first 4 years of his career. With that said, Kansas’ defense is likely still notably worse than Pitt’s (104th per sp+), and may give him an opportunity to bounce back.
Beyond Daniels, the other key contributors against Pittsburgh were running back CJ Donaldson and wide receiver Bryce Ford-Wheaton. Donaldson, a 6’2, 240 pound bruiser, managed to rack up 125 rushing yards and a touchdown on only seven carries. One can only imagine what he might be capable of this week if KU’s front seven hasn’t made great strides since last year. Ford-Wheaton is another player with size at 6’3, 224 pounds. He was Daniels’ primary target last week, catching 9 balls (15 targets) for 97 yards, finding the endzone twice.
Last week was a lot of fun, and certainly exceeded my Week One expectations. Still, while beating up a clearly inferior opponent is a step in the right direction, it can be dangerous to use it as proof of anything more than Kansas being capable of beating up on bad FCS squads. West Virginia is neither bad, or in the FCS. You might hear a different tune from me in Week Three if Kansas can pull off a road win here, but I’m not ready to call for that just yet. However, there have been years over the last decade or so where I would be bracing myself for a 35 point loss in a game like this. Not so under year two of Lance Leipold. I’m picking a loss, but at least a fairly competitive one.
West Virginia 38, Kansas 24