2011 Missouri Football Preview: Kansas

The best play Kansas made in last year's Border War. (Photo via Bill Carter.)

2011 Missouri Football Preview
Analysis: Dave Matter | Michael Atchison | Seth Rosner
Opponents: Miami (Ohio) | Arizona State | Western Illinois | Oklahoma | Kansas State | Iowa State | Oklahoma State | Texas A&M | Baylor | Texas | Texas Tech
Unit Walkthroughs: Quarterback (Bonus) | Running Backs | Wide Receivers (Bonus) | Tight Ends | Offensive Line | Defensive Ends (Bonus) | Defensive Tackles | Linebackers | Cornerbacks | Safeties

2010 was an unmitigated disaster for the Kansas Jayhawks. We’ll pause one moment for you to smirk appropriately.

When he was head coach of the Buffalo Bulls, Turner Gill was known for milking every last ounce of talent out of his players, teaching conservative, fundamental football. His teams forced fumbles, created breaks for themselves, and won a surprising MAC title in 2008. It was easy to look at his profile and think, "Just imagine what he could do with a higher level of talent!" Well, when he took the Kansas job last winter, he inherited a squad that seemed to have less talent than most of the rest of the conference by far. They had a decent young back that wasn't as good as everybody else's young backs. They had a couple of solid linebackers who weren't as solid as everybody else's. Their offensive line was decent but not good enough to account for the lack of skill position talent.

With a gap this large, Kansas needed to take risks to win with this level of talent, and that isn't entirely in Gill's nature. The team was young enough that it isn't impossible to think things could improve when last year's freshmen are seniors, but it is nearly impossible to imagine the Jayhawks succeeding to much degree this coming fall. According to a combination of per-play and drive efficiency ratings, Kansas ranked dead last among BCS conference teams last year.

But the Border War will always be the Border War, name change be damned. In fact, it was the ease of last season’s Border War victory that seemed so striking. Prior to last year’s 28-point victory for Mizzou, the victors of the games held in Kansas City had combined for a winning margin of only 13 points from 2007-09. In a rivalry that has produced no shortage of odd moments, the teams’ tilt after Thanksgiving will once again be cause for concern. But does Kansas have enough to cause even a modicum of fear?

OFFENSE

How much of an impact can three or four skill position players make for an offense? For the 2007-09 seasons, Kansas' offense was driven by quarterback Todd Reesing and receivers Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier (and, to a lesser extent, running back Jake Sharp). One had to figure that their departures would result in a step backwards for the 2011 Kansas offense, but not a Wile E. Coyote cliff dive. But in moving from Reesing to the trifecta of Jordan Webb, Quinn Mecham and (briefly) Kale Pick, in moving from Briscoe and Meier to Daymond Patterson and Bradley McDougald, in moving from Sharp to a youth-heavy rotation of James Sims and Deshaun Sands, and in moving from Mark Mangino and company to Gill and offensive coordinator Chuck Long, the offense completely fell apart.

The last time there was a fall this precipitous, it was after Washington State changed coaches between 2007 and 2008. Suffice it to say, Wazzu did not quickly bounce back. In fact, two years after their plummet, they made great progress just to get some of their offensive rankings back into the 80s. This was a nearly unprecedented collapse, and the precedent that does exist should be terrifying for Kansas fans. The Jayhawks tried desperately to establish the run in 2010, but with limited effectiveness. Sims was at least close to average as a freshman and could continue to grow as his career progresses, but his lack of explosiveness is disconcerting. Still, if Kansas is to overachieve in 2011, either he or incoming freshman Darrian Miller will likely be the reason.

What was perhaps most alarming about Kansas' 2010 stats is that Gill tried a number of players in a number of different roles, and almost nobody distinguished themselves. Webb, Mecham and Pick all averaged between 5.4 and 5.6 yards per pass, had nearly identical TD-to-INT ratios, and completed between 57 and 60 percent of passes. Meanwhile, D.J. Beshears, a solid athlete, couldn't establish a role for himself, and one of Kansas’ top weapons (Bradley McDougald) is now a strong safety. Hope for the offense comes in the form of freshman quarterback Brock Berglund, but even he has fallen prey to the Lawrence soap opera before taking a snap as a Jayhawk. Since decommitting from Colorado and enrolling early at Kansas, Berglund has compared himself to a combination of Tim Tebow, Michael Vick and Peyton Manning, and has reportedly alienated teammates with his attitude while missing spring practices and voluntary workouts this summer.

Relatively speaking, one has to consider the offensive line a reason for slight optimism.  They were average in terms of run blocking last year, and their horrid sack rates were as much the result of indecisive quarterbacks and no open receiving options as anything else. Three starters return on a line possessing 68 career starts and 14 total letters, led by Tanner Hawkinson and Jeremiah Hatch. When you're starving for experience, that certainly qualifies.

DEFENSE

Generally speaking, every defense in the country will fall into one of two philosophies: Either you can load up and attempt to force the action, or you can live to fight another down and hope the other team eventually makes a mistake. Kansas definitely attempted the latter in 2010, either because it wanted to or because its personnel left the Jayhawks no choice.

Either way, you can win games with a conservative, somewhat bend-don't-break approach if you have at least middling talent. When you are taking the job at a school that has historically been an underdog in its conference, however, you probably cannot afford to go conservative with your choice of defensive coordinator. That's exactly what Gill did in hiring Carl Torbush, presumably for his BCS pedigree at Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Alabama, North Carolina and Ole Miss. Yet, it had been a while since he was at the helm of a truly solid BCS conference defense. Without strong talent to bail him out, he had no idea what buttons to push, and in taking few risks, he and Gill left Kansas almost no chance to succeed through underdog strategies.

A prostate cancer diagnosis resulted in Torbush’s retirement in late May, and in his place steps cornerbacks coach Vic Shealy, whose last defensive coordinator job was with FCS Richmond in 2009. The cast of characters with whom he’ll be working does not look drastically different than it did last year. Defensive end Jake Laptad probably qualified as KU's best playmaker, but both he and linebacker Justin Springer are gone. So are defensive backs like 2007 contributor Chris Harris and safety Olaitan Oguntodu. Typically, losing contributors from a poor defense does make that much of a difference, but Laptad, Springer and Harris were still potentially Kansas' most explosive players along with linebacker Steven Johnson and nickelback Tyler Patmon.

It's hard to scope out any sort of strength, but you can at least talk yourself into the Kansas secondary. Despite the losses of Harris and Oguntodu, the Jayhawks still return a few interesting contributors like McDougald, Patmon, corner Isiah Barfield and safeties Lubbock Smith and Keeston Terry. The Jayhawks are hoping that tailback-turned-end Toben Opurum's second year in the position results in the breakthrough that his first did not. He is really the only returning end who had significant production in 2010, though growth from tackles Richard Johnson and Patrick Dorsey could alter the defensive line’s ceiling.

SERIES SPOTLIGHT: NOVEMBER 22, 1958 (Mizzou 13, Kansas 13)

Close your eyes for a second.  Allow yourself to drift back to the evening of November 24, 2007.  Arrowhead Stadium.  It's the biggest game in the history of the Border War.  Missouri has led throughout, but a 21-point lead has been whittled down to six.  They give Kansas the ball back with under 30 seconds to go and almost the entire field to go. 

You with me so far?  You know what happened in 2007--the "Sod Reesing" incident.  One of the most fulfilling moments in Mizzou history.  The Mizzou defensive line meets at the quarterback, and Todd Reesing is piledrived into the turf in the endzone, clinching a Mizzou victory, the North title, the #1 ranking, etc.  The moment is well-documented, to say the least.

Now imagine this scenario: instead of getting sacked, Reesing finds Dezmon Briscoe for a miraculous 89-yard touchdown.  Chaos ensues at Arrowhead.  Kansas is just an extra point away from winning the game, moving on to the Big 12 Championship Game, advancing to #1 in the country, and scoring eternal bragging rights...

...and Mizzou blocks the PAT.  Tie game.  Of the 80,537 in attendance, and the millions watching around the country, how many Mizzou and Kansas fans would have dropped dead somewhere in that sequence?

Granted, the game in 1958 was much less significant than what took place in 2007, and in 2007 there would have been the most ulcer-inducing overtime ever played (seriously, I don't know if I could have watched that...), but that's pretty much what happened.  Mizzou's hopes for a surprise Big 7 title were out the window after the whooping they took in Norman the week before, and with few bowl games available, this game was for pride.  Of course, this was Kansas, and Dan Devine almost always got his team up for Kansas, going 8-3-2 in his 13 seasons in Columbia.

Sure enough, Mizzou came out ready to dominate.  Powered by Mel West's 102 rushing yards, they took a 13-0 lead into the fourth quarter, but it should have been bigger.  Mizzou missed out on a series of scoring opportunities, due mostly to the play of KU's Homer Floyd, who made a series of game-saving tackles.

In the fourth quarter, a completely ineffective Kansas offense suddenly found its bearings.  They scored to cut the lead to 13-7, and with time running out, Mizzou attempted a game-clinching field goal and missed.  (Devine later admitted regretting the decision for a field goal attempt.)  On the next play, Floyd caught an 80-yard touchdown pass with only 18 seconds left.  It was an absolute dagger.

Eight days earlier, Mizzou had dreams of the Orange Bowl.  Now they were staring a .500 record in the face.  But the craziness wasn't over yet.  A point away from disastrous defeat, Mizzou's Dale Pidcock--who had been injured most of the season and came back just in time for the KU game--broke through the line and blocked the PAT.  Mizzou went from certain victory, to certain defeat, to a tie in less than 30 seconds.  Mizzou fans had to be both crestfallen and relieved at the same time.  If that happened today, even under 1958 circumstances--two MU and KU teams near .500, nothing on the line other than bragging rights--that would have just been the most harrowing ending to a game.

FOOTBALL STUDY HALL

The Kansas Jayhawks And Unintended Schadenfreude

Kansas had a little bit of bad fumble luck, and their YPP margin suggests they were rather unlucky there too.  They return a lot of starters, and their five-year recruiting rank is decent. All of these signs point to improvement in 2011. 

But how much? The 2010 Jayhawks were the worst Big 12 team of the last six years -- their minus-21.0% F/+ rating was significantly worse than that of the second-worst team of that span, 2008 Iowa State (-14.9%) -- and they ranked 32 spots worse than the second-worst Big 12 team (again, Iowa State) last fall. Because of their great 2007 season, their four-year history is not terrible, and initial Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 projections have them battling it out with ISU for last place instead of finishing a distant last.

But that Washington State specter looms. Teams don't collapse out of nowhere like this and immediately rebound with much velocity. While Gill figures out what he has (and preferably begins to think about a new pair of coordinators with an actual underdog mentality), it's not hard to see Kansas improving a bit and at least showing occasional saltiness in the fall; but it's also not hard to see the Jayhawks bottoming out. Kansas fans should look for individual progress from some of the youngsters -- Webb at quarterback, Sims and Miller at running back, et cetera -- in the hopes of building for 2012-13, but 2011 is most likely not going to be too pleasant an experience in Lawrence, especially not with their most winnable conference game (Iowa State) coming on the road.

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