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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 100: Kansas

Call it the first-year curse. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from or how old and experienced you are: if you’re a first-year coach at Kansas, things aren’t going to go well. They didn’t go well for Glen Mason, who then led K.U. to a high national ranking before heading to Minnesota. They didn’t go well for Mark Mangino, who led K.U. to the Orange Bowl before losing his job in 2009. And they didn’t go well for Turner Gill, who arrived with the reputation as a program-builder but led Kansas to two fewer wins in his debut campaign. So there are two instances of where the first-year curse led to sunnier days down the road; will lightning strike for a third time at Kansas?

Conference
Big 12

Location
Lawrence, Kan.

Nickname
Jayhawks

Returning starters
13 (6 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 67

2010 record
(3-9, 1-7)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 100

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    McNeese St.
  • Sept. 10
    Northern Illinois
  • Sept. 17
    at Georgia Tech
  • Oct. 1
    Texas Tech
  • Oct. 8
    at Oklahoma St.
  • Oct. 15
    Oklahoma
  • Oct. 22
    Kansas St.
  • Oct. 29
    at Texas
  • Nov. 5
    at Iowa St.
  • Nov. 12
    Baylor
  • Nov. 19
    at Texas A&M
  • Nov. 26
    Missouri (in Kansas City)

Last year’s prediction

Let’s look at this season. Some have Kansas ranked higher than fourth in the Big 12 North; some have K.U. as a borderline Top 25 team, which seems a stretch. To be honest, I don’t think these Jayhawks are going to win more than seven games — perhaps better than last year’s team, at least in the win column, though not a realistic North division contender. I think K.U. is far closer to Kansas State — coming soon on the Countdown — than Missouri, a team I’m high on, and is far off the pace set by Nebraska, a national title contender. I’m not going to get into the program’s future in the Big 12, other to say that it’s not altogether bright. I can say that Kansas has the right man to keep it in yearly bowl contention, beginning in 2010 and extending as far as the university will have him — or can keep him.

2010 recap

In a nutshell An abysmal showing, one that sets Kansas back from what seemed like perennial bowl contention into almost full-on rebuilding mode. Almost might be a polite term; Kansas might be knee-deep in rebuilding mode, depending on how quickly Gill and the Jayhawks can turn the page on last season. It won’t be easy to forget: Kansas was awful offensively, thanks to an unsolved quarterback situation, and the defense — with some blame on the offense, which couldn’t control the ball — continued to regress after playing with such confidence only a few years ago. Kansas can’t afford to completely forget last season, if only to use it as a primer on how not to win in the Big 12. Don’t rotate quarterbacks from week-to-week; don’t play down to your competition; do your best to stop the run; do try to tackle, whenever possible.

High point Call me crazy, but we have a tie. Yes, the most impressive win of the year came at home against Georgia Tech on the second Saturday of the season. The erased the foul taste of an 0-1 start and left Kansas confident in what would occur the rest of the way, even if things didn’t go as planned. That win is tied with a 52-45 victory over Colorado on Nov. 6 for three reasons: one, it snapped a four-game losing streak; two, the offense finally showed some life; and three, it was the lone conference win on the year.

Low point Losses to Missouri and Kansas State always hurt. So does a new entry onto the list of losses Kansas always wants to avoid: a 55-7 shellacking at the hands of Baylor. Strangely enough, perhaps the most helpless feeling Kansas experienced all season came in a 20-3 loss at Nebraska, though that doesn’t sound bad on paper. I promise you: it might as well have been 2,000-3.

Tidbit Now updated for 2011. The last seven Kansas coaches (Gill, Mangino, Terry Allen, Mason, Bob Valesente, Mike Gottfried and Don Fambrough) have combined to win 21 games in their debut seasons. Both Mangino and Mason lost 10 games in their first seasons in Lawrence; Gill, Valesente and Fambrough each won three games, though Valesente dropped back to one win in his second year; and Gottfriend and Allen won four and five games, respectively, with Mason’s solid nine-year span laying the groundwork for Allen’s solid debut. Gottfried, who won four, five and six games in his three seasons, is the only Kansas coach in the modern era to improve his win total in each of his first three seasons. A brief history of the K.U. football program in 116 words, not including this sentence.

Former players in the N.F.L.

8 WR Dezmon Briscoe (Tampa Bay), OT Anthony Collins (Cincinnati), LB James Holt (San Diego), WR Kerry Meier (Atlanta), FB Moran Norris (San Francisco), LB Mike Rivera (Miami), S Darrell Stuckey (San Diego), CB Aqib Talib (Tampa Bay).

Arbitrary top five list

Best MAC coaching jobs of the last decade
1. Turner Gill, Buffalo, 2008: 8-6.
2. Mike Haywood, Miami (Ohio), 2010: 10-4.
3. Al Golden, Temple, 2009: 9-4.
4. Urban Meyer, Bowling Green, 2001: 8-3.
5. Brady Hoke, Ball State, 2008: 12-2.

Coaching

Turner Gill (North Texas ’90), 3-9 after a single season. It was an ugly start, but as noted, Gill’s turnaround at Buffalo was nothing short of extraordinary. Offensively, the Bulls improved their scoring average from 18.3 points a game in 2006 to 27.6 in 2007 to 30.3 in 2008, when Buffalo set a school record with 424 total points. On defense, U.B. went from allowing opponents to score 35.9 points per game in 2006 to only 23.8 last fall, a program record on the F.B.S. level. Buffalo’s play earned Gill well-deserved national attention, and made his name a popular one for B.C.S. conference job openings. Four years ago, Gill was heavily connected to the open Nebraska job, and was one of the two finalists to replace Bill Callahan. After leading Buffalo to the MAC championship in 2008, Gill was connected to job openings at Syracuse, Auburn, Mississippi State and Iowa State. Of course, it is hard to speak of Turner Gill without mentioning his long connection to Nebraska, which undoubtedly helped raise his chances at the open head coaching spot in 2007; that his mentor, Tom Osborne, was Nebraska’s recently hired athletic director also didn’t hurt. Gill was first a tremendous quarterback for the Huskers from 1981-83, leading Nebraska to a 28-2 record and three consecutive top-five finishes. After his playing career ended, a one-year stint as the receivers coach at S.M.U. led Gill back to Lincoln, where he coached the quarterbacks from 1992 to 2002, was the assistant head coach in 2003 and coached the receivers in 2004. Gill was part of three national-championship-winning teams with the Huskers (1994-95, 1997) and coached a Heisman Trophy winner in Eric Crouch and a Heisman finalist in Tommie Frazier. His experience under Osborne, whose stoic, calm demeanor Gill inherited, served him well at Buffalo. It will continue to serve him well at Kansas, where Gill’s turnaround touch will again be tested.

Players to watch

Last year’s offense finished last in the Big 12 in rushing, pass efficiency, total offense and scoring. And finished second-to-last in passing, before I forget, ahead of only a very much run-first Nebraska offense. So there’s tons of work to be done, with finding a starting quarterback a nice first step. The situation is a bit less muddled than last fall, if only because Kale Pick has since been moved to receiver, making it a two-horse race. As of today, Jordan Webb and Quinn Meacham are tied atop the depth chart, with Webb holding a slight edge. Who knows how things will play out in August, but Gill needs to make a decision and stick with it, something he didn’t do in 2010. I’d bank on Webb starting, but I wouldn’t bet against Meacham, a former JUCO transfer, seeing time as well.

There was also a by-committee approach at running back, with James Sims doing most of the work but three other backs earning at least 50 carries. Look for Sims to do even more than he did as a freshman last fall, when he led the Jayhawks with 742 yards rushing and 9 scores. Two of the 50-carry backs are no longer in picture, leaving a spot for incoming freshman Darrian Miller, who enrolled during the spring. Sims could challenge for a 1,000-yard season if the passing game gets its act together.

The offensive line isn’t in bad shape. It helps to have a healthy Jeff Spikes in the mix; a two-year starter from 2008-9, Spikes missed all of last season with a leg injury. He has reclaimed his prior form, quickly moving to the top spot at left tackle. He joins three starters from a year ago: senior center Jeremiah Hatch, junior right tackle Tanner Hawknison and right guard Duane Zlatnik. Hawkinson moves to the right side after playing left tackle last fall, and Ztlatnik made nine starts in 2010 after moving over from the defensive line. That leaves only left guard, where four-game starter Trevor Marrongelli will do his best to stay upright for an entire season. Locating depth is the biggest concern.

It was quite the game of musical chairs, but Toben Opurum seems to have found a home. And no, it’s not at running back, nor at linebacker. It’s at defensive end, where Opurum’s 2011 task will be to help Kansas recover from the painful loss of Jake Laptad, who ended his career with the second-most sacks in school history. The focus will really be on Opurum, who has the physical ability to be a menace but is still green — unfortunately, he’s still the most experienced end on the roster. Keba Agostino saw some time last fall and is slated to start on the opposite end, but it’s hard to project what K.U. will get from the sophomore. Sophomore Kevin Young started some games at end last fall but has since moved inside, though I imagine he could move back to end in a pinch.

The situation is better at tackle. The Jayhawks bring back both of last year’s starters, Richard Johnson — a four-year starter now — and Patrick Dorsey, and have two nice reserves in Young and John Williams. Young needs to beef up a bit to stand tall against the run, but he’s definitely talented. Williams started a handful of games in 2009 but is probably better used in a reserve role, which he’ll fill in 2011.

Big picture question: What kind of defense is Kansas going to run? Maybe I should have asked this earlier… Does Kansas want to go with a base 4-3? What about a 4-2-5? Or a 4-4-3? The options are there, and K.U. can alternate from down to down, but the linebacker corps is interested in the answer. I’m asking because if K.U. so desired, it could play three linebackers and feel a bit more confident in the results — that’s what a little more depth will do for you, even if the Jayhawks lost a pair of contributors.

Senior Steven Johnson (team-best 95 tackles) is the rock of the group, and will be on the strong side in the base three-linebacker alignment. Sophomore Huldon Tharp is back from injury; he was a bright spot on an otherwise disappointing defense in 2009. The Jayhawks also have former Buffalo transfer Darius Willis, who was off to a strong 2009 campaign with the Bulls before suffering a season-ending injury. And then there’s converted safety Prinz Kandle, also a sophomore. Not quite a dominating group, but the three sophomores are interesting prospects, and K.U. seems more athletic than a year ago.

No more Chris Harris, which is sad. He wasn’t just a four-year starter in the secondary; he was a four-year starter who played anywhere and everywhere, doing what he to be done, filling in where he was needed and providing leadership to an otherwise inexperienced group. So there are some big shoes to be filled. Perhaps Bradley McDougald will step into that role, even if he’s made a quick run from wide receiver to defensive back. He’ll start at strong safety, perhaps across from another former wide receiver in sophomore Keeston Terry. Kansas goes four-deep at cornerback: starters Greg Brown and Isiah Barfield are backed up by Tyler Patmon and Anthony Davis.

In order of concern: line, secondary, linebacker. No one group instills confidence, though the defense should be better than it was a year ago. Not that much better, mind you, especially with the significant issues getting to the quarterback. But the linebacker corps is athletic and the interior of the line pretty deep. The secondary will miss Harris terribly, but perhaps it can produce more turnovers when starting two safeties with a background on offense.

Position battle(s) to watch

Wide receivers It’s all about inexperienced underclassmen: tall ones, short ones, fast ones, slower ones, converted quarterbacks, converted running backs. The receiver corps has a sure thing in sophomore Daymond Patterson, who led Kansas in catches (60) and receiving yards (487) last fall but, as those totals suggest, wasn’t quite the big-play threat. Not that Patterson couldn’t be, given the opportunity to do so — that falls on the quarterbacks, who were ineffective. With two contributors lost to graduation and a position change, Kansas needs to locate at least three targets from a list of unproven options. One, sophomore Chris Omigie, has an impressive blend of size and athleticism. Another, Christian Matthews, earned the starting spot opposite Patterson thanks to a strong spring. What’s most intriguing about this group, however, are the two players new to the position after playing elsewhere in 2010. One is converted running back D.J. Beshears, though he’s not really a newcomer to receiver, having made 10 catches for 69 yards in addition to his 213 yards on the ground last fall. Pick also began his move to receiver late last season but is not quite a finished product at his new position. So K.U. has options, but no one it can truly rely as of today. One guys K.U. can rely on: tight end Tim Biere (19 receptions for 228 yards and a team-best 4 scores) is an all-conference candidate.

Game(s) to watch

The new Big 12 schedule costs Kansas a fourth shot at a non-conference win, and also pits the Jayhawks against teams from the disbanded South division — Texas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M — they might have avoided in the old conference layout. That’s a concern. Once again, the old North division are here to save the day: the best chances at Big 12 wins come against Kansas State and Iowa State.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Year two feels suspiciously like year one, as I noted in a post earlier today. And that’s not a great feeling for Kansas, though there’s still hope that this rebuilding project — and this is a rebuilding project happening — won’t last beyond this season. The Jayhawks have a number of issues to address before turning that corner, however. Quarterback remains unsettled, though less than it was a year ago. If I’m Gill, I’m putting my cards on the table with Webb and stepping away, not pulling him after a bad start. It would help if one or two of the inexperienced receivers would step up, but we really won’t know about that group until September. Kansas should put its focus on the running game, which has a nice back in Sims and a starting five set in stone up front. The defense needs to get to the quarterback, which would lend a tremendous hand to the secondary. Maybe a young, still unproven end becomes K.U.’s rush end, though this unknown quantity hasn’t made his presence felt as of yet. So it’s not as if Kansas is ready to take a leap forward in 2011; even if it was, the schedule is going to make things a struggle. Welcome to life in the new Big 12, Jayhawks. Welcome to yearly tilts with Texas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Baylor. It won’t be easy, especially when you’re trying to rebuild on the fly.

Dream season Remember Buffalo? Gill works the same magic with Kansas, leading the Jayhawks from 3-9 to 8-4 despite the beefed-up conference schedule.

Nightmare season How do things get worse? Kansas again loses to an F.C.S. foe to open the year, doesn’t follow that up with an upset win over Georgia Tech and doesn’t win a single Big 12 game.

In case you were wondering

Where do Kansas fans congregate? As you’d expect, there are a lot of options out there. For message boards, check out Phog.netKUSports.comJayhawk Slant and The Shiver. For a blog’s take, visit Rock Chalk Talk. Remember, I will include any blog, message board or local beat reporter you think warrants mention in this section. It can be your blog, viewed only by you, and I’ll include it. Just post a comment below with the link.

Word Count

Through 21 teams 55,118.

Up Next

Who is No. 99? If you go to the Web site for tomorrow’s university and type my first name into the search option at the top right corner, the first hit that comes back is the biography of Paul Mangan, a biochemist who received his Ph.D. at the school in question.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Jay says:

    Isn’t it easier to just Google Paul Mangan and go from there? UAB.

    Paul: Damn. I didn’t see that the link I found off the U.A.B. site was on the first page of his Google search. Well, that was an easy hint.

  2. UAB is tomorrow’s pick, an institution where none of the students care at all about the football program. But that’s mostly because they’ve been so bad for so long.

    They’ve only been to one bowl game and, of course, lost it. Neil Calloway’s not going to get it done. He’s got one year left unless something miraculous happens.

  3. philip says:

    did we get a preview two-fer today?

  4. wildcat6 says:

    From an Orange Bowl victory to #100 / 120 in preseason rankings in four years….that’s a pretty steep fall.

  5. ace says:

    You have to remember ku hasn’t really fallen as far as you think from their orange bowl. They beat no one that year and had to buy their way into the orange bowl. So its not like they really earned it. FBI investigators found thousands of unused orange bowl tickets and parking passes while investigating the ku ticket scam. Which sent many jayhawks to prison for years.

  6. Perrin says:

    Paul, I was unaware that Mr. Gill received his undergraduate degree from North Texas. Could you please give us a little more detail?

    Thanks!

  7. SMD says:

    That Buffalo team in 2008 was awfully lucky to have won eight games. It took a completed Hail Mary for them to beat Temple, and without that win they don’t make the MAC Championship game in which Ball State inexplicably couldn’t hold onto the ball.

    I know Buffalo is always bad and winning eight games at Buffalo is an accomplishment in and of itself, but it’s not like Gill really turned that program around. They returned back to form in his final season, and there was no talent left over after he left. Plus, the MAC has been weak the past three years, especially compared to the quite middle years of the 2000s.

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