The first preview of the year, especially against an FCS opponent, is probably the toughest to write. No one knows for sure what this KU team will look like, and there isn’t a plethora of offseason information available on mid-tier FCS programs. With that said, there are enough bits and pieces of information floating around the internet to put together some idea of how the first week of the season may play out.
The big question on people’s minds, especially people who’ve seen Kansas drop an unfortunate number of these games in recent years, is whether Missouri State is one of the tough FCS programs who would be able to hang with a lot of FBS schools. The answer to that is an emphatic “eh, not really.” ESPN’s SP+ ratings, courtesy of college football analytics guru Bill Connelly, have a page that finally combines both FBS and FCS schools for a comprehensive D1 rankings system for all 261 teams. In these ratings (which are preseason ratings, and therefore based on a combination of returning production, recruiting, recent history, etc), Kansas comes in 63rd, which the only team in all of FCS ranked any higher being South Dakota State at 46th. Thank goodness we didn’t put them on the schedule again. Missouri State, however, is the 34th rated FCS school who in the combined rankings comes in 153rd. What type of company does that put them in? Right around Sam Houston, UTEP, Hawaii, and Abiline Christian.
Another analytics guru, Jeff Sagarin, has been combining all D1 schools in his ratings for years. His numbers are more or less in agreement with Connelly’s, putting Missouri State 145th. Kansas, for reference, comes in 51st.
Last year, the MSU Bears went 5-6, and finished 8th in the MVC. There isn’t much to learn from going through last year’s schedule, except for possibly one game. KU and MSU actually had a common opponent last year: Arkansas. They played in very different situations, with KU’s matchup coming in a late December bowl game, while Missouri State played them in the 3rd weekend of September. The final score of that one is fairly surprising, with the Razorbacks winning just 38-27. That means even Missouri State put up more resistance against Arkansas’ offense than Kansas did. It was an “take your foot off the brake late” situation either. Missouri State was winning this football game headed into the 4th quarter. Arkansas would finally find their mojo to outscore MSU 21-3 in the 4th, but if nothing else, this is another reminder that even mid-level Missouri Valley schools are just tough to play against for some reason.
Looking at what’s changed for Missouri State since last year, the obvious answer is the coaching staff. You may have heard of a guy named Bobby Petrino. You may not have heard that he spent the last three years at Missouri State, as part his walk of shame to get back into big time coaching after...well, a lot of stuff. Petrino is gone now, with first-time head coach Ryan Beard taking over. As far as players are concerned, a particular standout to keep your eyes on will be running back Jacardia Wright. Wright transferred from K-State and had a solid season last year for the Bears, and is both their leading returning rusher and receiver. He has the athleticism to be on a Kansas State roster at one point, so if KU’s defense hasn’t improved since last year (please, please, I hope it’s improved), Jayhawk fans might be a little tired of hearing Wright’s name by the end of this one, even if it’s unlikely to be a close game.
That last sentence might have given away a bit about my outlook on this one. I won’t try to create any suspense here: there’s no reason for this to be one of the FCS opponent nailbiters we got used to seeing under KU’s coaches in the 2010s. With that said, I’m not sure the Jayhawks will come out and blow Missouri State away from start to finish, either. Andy Kotelnicki isn’t likely to open up the whole playbook in week one against a MVC school, and as I said earlier, these teams just seem to routinely give their FBS opponents trouble. Since the Jayhawks’ defense is their big question mark headed into the season, with plenty of transfers around the depth chart, it may take some time to gel, and we may have to watch the Bears put up a few big plays to keep this one close early on. But I do believe the Jayhawks will find their footing, and I’m not particularly concerned about the offense scoring on this MSU defense. Unless KU’s defense is every bit as porous as it was last year, it would take a wild sequence of events for the Bears to keep up with Kansas on the scoreboard, regardless of how little of the playbook may actually be available. There’s just too much athleticism and talent on that side of the ball.
Kansas 48, Missouri State 27