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KU Football: Program Defining Games

If you could change the outcome of one KU football game, which one would it be, and why?

AutoZone Liberty Bowl - Kansas v Arkansas Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

On a recent Thursday morning, noted KU scoopmeister and guy-who-doesn’t-know-that-I-exist Mike Vernon tweeted out the following question: If you could change the outcome of one KU football game, what would it be and why?

Initially, I agreed with Vernon’s assertion that 2009 Colorado is an excellent choice. I checked the comments over the next couple of hours and a lot of folks there went with 2007 Missouri, also another outstanding choice. A few more said 2009 Missouri, and one brave soul even brought up 2016 Texas. (Think about it.)

All great choices.

There are a lot of fun “what ifs” out there in KU’s football history, but to me, this is asking if there is a program changing game out there, that had it gone the other way, would KU football be in an overall better position? So, that’s how I’m approaching this.

Obviously, this discussion is much too important to be solved through Twitter debate. So I am here to take the reigns and put all these bandwagon KU twitter fans in their place.

(Sarcasm... )

(... Mostly.)

Who put me in charge, you may ask. Well - I did. As someone who has attended over 100 KU football games in his lifetime, AND was a season ticket holder through literally the worst decade of D1 college football ever (before moving away from the area), AND who volunteered his free time to write about it for six of those years here at RCT, AND who is the reigning KLWN+RCST KU Football Trivia champion, I think I deserve it.

But I’m digressing. To the list!

Honorable Mentions

I immediately came up with a few games on my own, and then with a little research, ended up with an initial list of 12 games where, if I could, I would change the outcome to the benefit of Kansas football. I then ranked them. Here are the games that did not make my top five, in order, counting down from 12.

2006 @ Nebraska, 39-32 L (OT)

Coming into his fifth season in Lawrence, Mark Mangino had already made two bowl games, and entering this season was coming off a win in the Fort Worth Bowl. The Jayhawks were 3-1 coming into this one, the one loss a back-and-forth game in Toledo, OH (that almost made this list on its own). A win in Lincoln against #21 Nebraska would get KU back on track and in prime position to make its third bowl game in four years.

But out of KU’s first five offensive plays, two were interceptions. The Jayhawks would turn it over two more times in the first half, with a fumble and another interception, and at one point found themselves down 24-7. It looked like yet another oh-so-familiar Nebraska beatdown, making the big 40-15 KU win in Lawrence the year prior look like an anomaly.

But then Kansas scored the next 22 points to take a 1-point lead midway through the 4th quarter, and it was game on. Regulation ended in a 32-32 tie with KU scoring in the final minute and converting a two-point attempt. Nebraska scored on the first possession of overtime, then was able to hold the Jayhawks out of the end zone to secure the victory.

Would a win in this game have been program defining? Well… maybe? It would have set KU up for a three-game win streak against Nebraska, something that hadn’t happened since the early 1960s. Based on how the rest of the season turned out, it also would have clinched a bowl spot for the Jayhawks, who originally finished 6-6 but failed to procure a bowl invitation. The 2006 season saw KU go 3-4 in one-possession games, and I couldn’t convince myself that changing one of those outcomes would alter the history or perception of KU football.

2009 vs Missouri, 41-39 L

In what would be Mark Mangino’s final game as KU’s football coach, Kansas blew leads of 21-10 and 28-19 in the season finale, with Missouri hitting a last-second field goal to end The Bear’s tenure with a 41-39 loss despite a record-setting day from quarterback Todd Reesing. KU would finish the campaign at 5-7, with the loss also denying them a bowl bid. Mangino would “resign” five days later.

Would a win here have been enough for Mangino to survive the probe into his conduct regarding his players? At this point, knowing what we think we know now, probably not. It sure seems like Lew Perkins was set on running Mangino out of town. A win over Missouri plus a bowl game makes that more difficult, but here’s guessing Perkins would have found a way, and regardless of the outcome of this game, Turner Gill is likely on the sidelines for the following season.

2008 @ South Florida, 37-34 L

Kansas opened the 2008 season at #14 in the polls, and the first two weeks of the year looked a lot like the 2007 campaign. In late September, KU traveled to Tampa, FL, for a Friday night showdown with #19 USF on ESPN2.

The Jayhawks dominated the first half, building a 20-3 lead. But then the wheels absolutely fell off, and with 13 minutes left in the 4th quarter, KU was staring at a 34-20 deficit. Back-to-back possessions brought it to a 34-all tie, and after a South Florida punt, KU got the ball back with a chance to go win the game in regulation. After driving to near midfield with less than 45 seconds to play, quarterback Todd Reesing was picked off, with the INT returned 40 yards to put USF in field goal position. They converted, and Kansas limped home with a 37-34 loss.

A win here would have had KU at 6-0 and likely ranked in the top-10 for its trip to Norman to play #4 Oklahoma in mid-October. KU would finish the regular season 7-5, but 8-4 would have looked a lot better to Holiday Bowl or Alamo Bowl. But, considering the whooping KU put on Minnesota in the Insight Bowl, I feel it’s hardly program defining to change the outcome of this one.

TIE - 2022 vs TCU, 38-31 L - 2022 vs Arkansas, 53-51 L (3OT)

The most recent examples on our list, of course we all remember how KU entered the contest with TCU at 5-0 through a difficult early schedule, building enough hype to bring College Gameday to Lawrence for the first time ever. A back-and-forth affair all day long, Kansas had the ball near the red zone with under a minute to play and a chance to force overtime and go for the win. The ref crew missed a pretty obvious defensive pass interference call, and TCU took over on downs and ran out the clock.

This one would have made KU 6-0 while knocking TCU out of the College Football Playoff talk straight away. While the Jayhawks would go on to win just one more game the rest of the year, the momentum in Lawrence under second-year coach Lance Leipold was already palpable, so I’m not sure altering one result from last year changes much in terms of the overall position of the program.

Same with the Liberty Bowl against Arkansas. Does winning that game change your perception of the program? The national perception? I don’t think KU is in any worse of a spot for having dropped that game, so I don’t think you can put it in a top-five program changing list.

1993 vs Nebraska 21-20 L

Ah, the very first KU football game I ever attended. At the tender age of 13, my parents introduced KU football to me and, well, you all get to deal with the aftermath.

Anyway. #6 Nebraska rolled into Lawrence looking for yet another big win, but KU just wouldn’t cooperate. The Jayhawks used Nebraska’s game plan against them, controlling the clock with the run game. The Huskers went up 21-14 with just over 8 minutes to play, but KU drove back down in the final minutes, with June Henley plunging into the end zone at the 52-second mark. Glen Mason elected to go for the win instead of the tie, but KU couldn’t convert and the Huskers escaped Lawrence with the 1-point victory. (Overtime rules wouldn’t be introduced until the 1996 season.)

KU was coming off an Aloha Bowl victory the previous season, and a win here would have not only knocked Nebraska out of the national championship picture, but put KU in a bowl game for the second consecutive season. It would have also been KU’s third consecutive 6-win season, something that, again, had not happened since the early 1960s. (They were not selected for a bowl in 1991 at 6-5.) It would have also stopped Nebraska’s win streak over KU at 24, a streak which would eventually reach 36.

A win here over Nebraska could have really put some momentum on Glen Mason’s rebuild of the program. But program changing momentum? I think it could be debated, but I lean toward no.

1995 @ Kansas State, 41-7 L

Another Glen Mason team, these Jayhawks started off 7-0 and came in ranked #6 to the late-October matchup with #14 K-State. After a bomb to WR Isaac Byrd to start off the game, K-State scored the next 41 points in what would be a preview of the next eight Sunflower Showdowns.

This is where things began to really get interesting for me when compiling/sorting the list. A win here puts KU at 9-0 going into a matchup with top-ranked Nebraska. It also probably puts KU in the Cotton Bowl at the end of the season instead of the Aloha Bowl. I think you could make an argument that it affects the trajectory of the K-State series as well; KU hadn’t been blown out like this by the Wildcats since 1982, and you would have to go all the way back to 1955 to find another loss to K-State that compares. This is when the beatdowns by Bill Snyder really began.

This one - this one you could make a solid argument with.

The Top 5

5. 1961 Colorado, 20-19 L

In the fourth year of the Jack Mitchell era, KU was coming off a top-10 finish in the 1960 season. Behind senior quarterback John Hadl, the Jayhawks began the 1961 campaign ranked #8. The first three weeks do not go as planned, however, with a tie to Wyoming sandwiched around one-point losses to TCU and Colorado.

So instead of finishing at 5-2 in conference play, a KU victory over Colorado would vault KU into a tie for first in the Big 8, and the Jayhawks would then hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Buffaloes. However, it is my understanding that back then, the main tiebreaker consideration at that time would have been which team had not been there most recently. Since Colorado had been in 1956 and KU’s last trip was in 1947, it is most likely that KU would have had the opportunity represent the conference in the Orange Bowl against #4 LSU.

Would that, combined with the 1968 Orange Bowl, have been enough to change the direction of the program in the 1970s and ‘80s? Probably not, because KU was not participating in the arms race back then, at least, not as much as programs like OU/Ark/Tex/SMU/A&M were. But, it’s a fun thought exercise!

4. 2016 Texas, 24-21 W

Wait, what? A win is on this list? Why yes, yes it is. Because the more I think about it, the more it makes sense.

2016 was the second year of the David Beaty experiment. KU had lost 9 games in a row coming into this one, and hope for a turnaround was quickly dwindling. But then, one of the flukiest games ever happened, and Kansas stunned Texas in Lawrence. An almost competitive 15-point loss a week later to K-State enabled the administration to shout “Progress!” and award David Beaty a huge pay raise and extension, which predictably kept KU as the butt of college football jokes for four more miserable seasons.

It can be argued that this win may have set KU back multiple years. I think it would have been difficult for the administration to fire yet another coach after just two seasons, but would KU have gone another direction had Beaty been fired mid-2017? I think without this Texas win, he for sure doesn’t survive the running clock game against TCU in 2017, and maybe he doesn’t even make it that far.

In looking at coaches who changed programs following the 2017 season, would KU have pursued guys like Kevin Sumlin (Ariz), Herm Edwards (ArizSt), Chad Morris (Ark), or Josh Heupel (UCF)? Would the timing have been there to bring in Leipold? Or does KU still end up with Les Miles, just in 2018 instead of 2019, and therefore, is still able to bring in Leipold in 2021? This one really makes you think.

3. 2009 Colorado, 34-30 L

What a disaster 2009 turned out to be. Kansas started off the year 5-0, climbing to #16 in the polls, before dropping the final seven to end the season and see its coach fired - a coach who was less than two years removed from a 12-1 season and an Orange Bowl trophy.

When Kansas traveled to Colorado for game six, KU struck first with a field goal before Colorado ripped off 24-straight points. After CU stretched their lead to 27-10, KU fought back. Kansas would have two possessions late in the 4th quarter down by 4 points, both of which would end in the red zone but without a score.

Does winning this game change the trajectory of the rest of the season? The Jayhawks would suffer blowout losses to Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Texas, but were competitive and had chances to win against K-State, Nebraska, and Missouri.

Now, if KU knocks off Colorado, and the season’s trajectory changes enough to affect those other close games - if KU goes 9-3 instead of 5-7, I would guess Mark Mangino would have remained in Lawrence for the foreseeable future. Kansas would have had four bowls in five seasons, Turner Gill would have never taken over in Lawrence, and Kale Pick would have never moved to receiver. Yeah, I said it.

But if you’re only allowed to change one game, and the rest have to go the way they originally did? Then same as with the 2009 Missouri discussion above, I’m not sure Mangino survives the offseason and say hey to your new head coach, Turner Gill.

2. 1968 Oklahoma, 27-23 L

In 1968, KU began the season 7-0, smashing through #13 Indiana, #9 Nebraska, and five other opponents behind an offense that featured Bobby Douglass and John Riggins in the backfield. KU had risen to #3 in the polls when Oklahoma came to Lawrence sporting a 3-3 record. The Sooners had been a preseason top-5 team, however.

Had Kansas won this game and the rest of the regular season gone the way it did originally, the Jayhawks would have finished unbeaten. Unfortunately, there were three other major conference unbeatens that year: #1 Ohio State, #2 Southern Cal, and #3 Penn State. (Penn State was an independent at this time.) Back then, there was no guarantee of a true national championship game. So, the Big 10 + Pac 10 champs went to the Rose Bowl, the Big 8 to the Orange Bowl, SEC to the Sugar Bowl, etc.

So, it is likely that KU still would have drawn Penn State in the Orange Bowl, and that regardless of the outcome of that game, the winner of the Rose Bowl between USC and Ohio State would have been elected the national champion. But, to be in a position to claim a national championship? Even a disputed one? This is something that Kansas football fans are simply not familiar with.

1. 2007 Missouri, 36-28 L

I don’t have to regale you Kansas fans with tales of the 2007 season. (Do I?) Kansas rolled through its schedule, smashing everyone who came to Lawrence while doing just enough to get some tough road wins. By the time the Border War rolled around, KU was 11-0, ranked #2 in the country, and Kerry Meier was catching a touchdown pass on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

And we know what happened. The offense didn’t come to life until the second half, and by then it was too late and KU couldn’t make up the deficit, falling by eight points to the hated rivals from across the border.

A win here does so many things. It makes KU #1 in the country for the first time ever, as #1 LSU had just lost the night before to Arkansas. It puts KU in the Big 12 title game against #9 Oklahoma. That means the Jayhawks are just one game away from a national championship game.

In football.

Beating Missouri and take your chances with Oklahoma, now that’s a potential program changing game. And since we don’t have a regular season result with Oklahoma to consider, you can let your mind wander and think how awesome that December and January would have been if just one football score had gone the other way.