This preview originally published May 10 and has since been updated.
Kansas recovered a Virginia Tech onside kick with exactly three minutes to go in the Orange Bowl. The Jayhawks then did what they had done for almost the entire 2007 season: make exactly the plays they need to make.
Todd Reesing completed an 11-yard pass to Dexton Fields for a first down on second-and-7 from the Tech 40. Big Brandon McAnderson plowed for five yards on second-and-2 from the 21. And with the Hokies out of timeouts, McAnderson took a quick pitch on the right on third-and-2 and gained seven yards to seal the deal. Reesing kneeled the ball near the Tech goal line, the clock expired, and Mark Mangino somehow became the first coach in history to successfully avoid a Gatorade bath.
The University of Kansas: 2008 Orange Bowl champions. KU went 12-1, beat Kansas State for the third time in four years, hung 76 points on Nebraska, and finished seventh in the nation.
When I talk about a coach trying to build a program, I often use the phrase, "progress isn't linear." We all like to think that once our team has begun to improve, there's no turning back — you just clear one hurdle after another. But it rarely works that way. It certainly didn’t for Mangino — his progress in Lawrence was fast (from 2-10 to 6-7 in his second year), then slow (23-25 in years two through five), then fast again.
The un-building process for Kansas, however, was as linear as you'll ever see.
- A preseason top-15 team in 2008, the Jayhawks began the season 5-1 but lost four of five to fall out of Big 12 North contention and finish 8-5.
- A preseason top-25 team in 2009, they began 5-0 and finished 0-7.
- Mangino was dumped for unacceptable conduct and player mistreatment, and ill-conceived replacement Turner Gill went 3-9 then 2-10.
- Even more ill-conceived replacement Charlie Weis began his tenure 1-11, got impatient, signed a bunch of JUCOs, and went nowhere. David Beaty took over in 2015 and went 0-12.
From 12 wins to eight to five to three to two to one to zero. It's hard to get more linear than that.
As the 10-year anniversary of the Orange Bowl approaches, Kansas is trying to figure out if there’s hope for momentum in what basically amounts to its third restart effort. And I can’t guarantee there is. But I’ll say this: while only one KU team has ranked better than 95th in S&P+ over the last seven seasons, I’m willing to bet that this is the second one. And there’s at least a chance that this is the first one to rank better than 79th in that span.
I’m willing to make such a — cough — bold, risky statement based on the simple fact that, for the first time in quite a while, KU has options. Beaty has mined the transfer market for talent, and at least a few of his recent five-year recruits have shown promise. The result: some loose approximation of depth and position battles, particularly on an offense that has been destitute for years.
- Sophomore Carter Stanley vs. Washington State transfer Peyton Bender at quarterback.
- Junior Taylor Martin vs. sophomore Khalil Herbert vs. Colorado State transfer Deron Thompson vs. high-three-star JUCO transfer Octavius Matthews vs. three-star freshman Dom Williams at running back.
- Incumbents Steven Sims Jr. and LaQuvionte Gonzalez vs. Alabama transfer Daylon Charlot and JUCO transfer Kerr Johnson Jr. at wideout. [Update: Gonzalez has since been dismissed.]
- Six returning offensive linemen with starting experience vs. mid-three-star redshirt freshman Chris Hughes and former blue-chip Alabama commit Charles Baldwin up front.
Beaty also plucked offensive coordinator Doug Meacham away from TCU. Combine that with a legitimately solid defensive front — end Dorance Armstrong Jr. and tackle Daniel Wise combined for 30 tackles for loss and 13 sacks last season, and linebacker Joe Dineen Jr. returns from injury — and you’ve got reason for hope. Maybe not outright optimism, but, well, baby steps.
Beaty was a risky hire in a different way than his two predecessors. Gill had experienced just middling success at Buffalo (best S&P+ ranking: 68th) before he got hired as the Mike Riley to Mangino’s Bo Pelini — i.e. the prototypical Opposite of Your Ex. Weis, meanwhile, had gone just 16-21 in his last three years at Notre Dame, and with much better talent than he was going to be able to land in Lawrence.
Beaty, meanwhile, was simply unproven. His only head coaching experience was at the Texas high school level, and as I wrote when he was hired in 2015, “That Beaty is known as an excellent recruiter is one for the pro column. That it's the first thing anybody mentions about him throws up a red flag.” Your connections with Texas blue-chippers doesn’t really matter when you’re head coach at Kansas. (Louisiana blue-chippers, on the other hand ...)
Beaty’s 2-22 record is a reminder that we still don’t know that he can coach a more talented roster. But it does appear that, with help from transfers, he’s beginning to compile it. And it will allow us to start figuring out what KU’s ceiling is with him. Thus far we’ve only learned about the floor.
2016 in review
When Kansas overcame an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit to upset Texas in overtime near the end of 2016, that made 2016 a year of progress. It gave the Jayhawks two more wins (two) than they had the year before (zero), it was Beaty’s first conference win as head coach, and it was the Jayhawks’ second win in 29 tries in Big 12 play.
Indeed, when you’re starting from your lowest possible point, anything positive is progress. KU improved from 126th to 104th in S&P+, ticking up slightly on offense and in special teams and taking a couple of legitimate steps forward on defense. They were mostly competitive at home if still hopelessly outmatched on the road.
- Kansas at home (2-4): Avg. percentile performance: 51% (~top 65) | Avg. score: KU 28, Opp 27 | Avg. yards per play: KU 5.6, Opp 5.3 (plus-0.3)
- Kansas on the road (0-6): Avg. percentile performance: 17% (~top 105) | Avg. score: Opp 48, KU 13 | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.9, KU 4.3 (minus-2.6)
Now, the home slate included a visit from an awful Rhode Island, which plumped up the numbers a bit (or at least offset a dud against Ohio), but in conference play the Jayhawks were pretty scary in Lawrence. They all but beat TCU in early October, trailed Oklahoma State by only a 24-20 margin late in the third quarter, led Iowa State 24-16 late in the third quarter, and beat Texas.
On the road, meanwhile, 2015’s winless, hapless campaign continued. Still, though: definable progress. Now it’s time for more.
The last time Doug Meacham changed jobs, it was 2014, and his old team (Houston) fell by 39 spots in the Off. S&P+ rankings while his new team (TCU) rose by 84. That’s obviously missing some context — Meacham came to TCU as co-coordinator with Sonny Cumbie, and the TCU offense was far less banged up in 2014 than it was in 2013 — but it’s technically true.
Also true: Kansas hasn’t ranked in the double digits in Off. S&P+ since hitting 70th in 2012, Weis’ first season. Rising by 84 spots over last year’s attack would barely squeeze the Jayhawks into the Off. S&P+ top 25.
In a conference saturated with points and yards, KU produced little of either in 2016:
That’s a success rate about eight percentage points lower than anyone else’s in the conference and with middling-at-best big-play potential.
The reinforcements are coming, however. Finally. About a decade too late.
Meacham inherits a batch of returnees with experience and multiple years of eligibility remaining. Beaty’s youth movement has taken a couple of years, but now you’ve got a core of guys like Carter Stanley, all-or-nothing back Khalil Herbert, and leading receiver Steven Sims (869 yards, 7.4 per target), all of whom are either sophomores or juniors.
Then there are the new guys. Peyton Bender took over for an injured Luke Falk at Wazzu in 2015 and completed 49 of 80 passes in a win over Colorado and a loss to Washington. Octavius Matthews chose KU over offers from Louisville, Mississippi State, and others. Daylon Charlot was a top-100 recruit in 2015 and briefly saw the field for Alabama. Charles Baldwin was the No. 2 JUCO player in the country according to the 247Sports Composite before he was dismissed from Alabama for the proverbial “violation of team rules.”
There is actual experience, depth, and potential here. Even if the progress is slight, most of this year’s key pieces will return in 2018. And in Meacham, Beaty has landed a coordinator who has proven he can pull the strings of a Big 12 offense quite well.
So Kansas’ offense is almost pre-ordained for improvement. Great. What does that actually mean for 2017?
That’s hard to say because KU’s offense was really, really bad. The Jayhawks ranked 119th in Rushing S&P+ and the run was the strength of the offense; they ranked 126th in Passing S&P+. Of the nine players targeted by at least 11 passes in 2016, none produced a success rate higher than 45 percent, and only one (tight end Ben Johnson) averaged even 8 yards per target. Meanwhile, since-departed Ka’aun Kinner was the only running back who could top even a woeful 29 percent opportunity rate (percentage of carries gaining five yards). The national average was about 40 percent.
“Improvement” could mean a run game in the 90s and a passing game in the 100s. I’m betting it ends up a little more significant than that, but there’s still a long way to go.
Beaty’s first victory after his hire was holding onto Clint Bowen. The incumbent defensive coordinator had done a reasonable job as interim head coach in 2014 and, despite having to hold up an inept offense, crafted defenses that ranked 58th in Def. S&P+ in 2013 and 69th in 2014.
What was supposed to be a decent unit in 2015, however, bombed. KU plummeted to 121st, a bend-don’t-break defense that bent in half.
In 2016, however, experience up front led to the crafting of an identity. Daniel Wise and Dorance Armstrong Jr., overwhelmed freshmen in 2015, began to overwhelm blockers instead. Kansas ranked 16th in defensive line havoc rate and 24th in Adj. Sack Rate, and opponents feared the aggressive front enough that KU faced some of the highest passing downs run rates in the country. That screams “We want nothing to do with their pass rush.”
Having any sort of demonstrable strength gives you something to build around. Combined with an experienced secondary, KU produced a genuinely solid pass defense that ranked 35th in Passing S&P+.
Now comes the tricky part. Armstrong and Wise are back, but five of last year’s top six DBs are not. Statistically, that all but guarantees regression in pass defense, even with an excellent pass rush — one that could also boast breakout spring star Josh Ehambe at end opposite Armstrong. That means KU will have to actually figure out how to defend the run.
Enter the JUCOs. Tackles J.J. Holmes and KeyShaun Simmons and end Willie McCaleb are in to provide a little bit more oomph. Plus, Joe Dineen is back to clean things up at linebacker. He had 6.5 tackles for loss in 2015 but missed most of 2016. It’s all about options, and KU has a few here.
Still, the bar is low. KU “improved” from 123rd to 103rd in Rushing S&P+ and from 128th to 117th in opportunity rate last year, and hoping for more than a minor boost from JUCOs is usually misguided. One can expect KU to improve again against the run, but we’ll see how much. It will have to offset the regression in the back.
Eleven Kansas defensive backs recorded at least 7.5 tackles last fall, and only four return. Safety Mike Lee is a potential keeper in the back, but he’s a sophomore. Meanwhile, sophomores DeAnte Ford and Kyle Mayberry combined for 5 tackles; they’re the most seasoned corners. Yikes.
Again, here come JUCOs to the rescue. Sophomore Hasan Defense looked like a potential starter this spring, and if either corner Shakial Taylor or sophomore Antonio Cole can find a way to contribute as well, then maybe KU has enough in the back. Again, though, massive turnover in the secondary is the strongest predictor of defensive regression, and KU is facing massive turnover in the secondary.
Kansas was as dreadful in special teams as anything else in 2015 but found a couple of legitimate strengths here last fall. Matthew Wyman found the end zone on more of his kickoffs and improved from bad to decent in the place-kicking department, and the Jayhawks improved from 126th to 94th in Special Teams S&P+.
The bad news: Wyman’s gone. Punter Cole Moos was decent, and LaQuvionte Gonzalez had a couple of decent kick returns (punt returns, less so), but it will be hard to improve further without a decent leg to replace Wyman.
2017 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|2-Sep||SE Missouri State||NR||21.1||89%|
|14-Oct||at Iowa State||57||-17.1||16%|
|25-Nov||at Oklahoma State||22||-26.4||6%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||107|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||94 / 110|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||-10.2 (113)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||75 / 69|
|2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||-14 / -1.8|
|2016 TO Luck/Game||-5.1|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||58% (78%, 38%)|
|2016 Second-order wins (difference)||2.3 (-0.3)|
I spin my team previews positively whenever I get the chance, and I hedge like crazy. But I was so confident in Kansas’ total ineptitude that we went with snarky (and frankly fantastic) headlines in each of the last two KU previews — “Kansas will get exercise and fresh air” in 2015 and “Kansas will probably win at least one game!” last year.
There is no snark this time around. Okay, fine, there’s less snark. That should be seen as a tell. Kansas still has by far the most to prove in this conference and is playing from dramatically behind the rest of the league, but the Jayhawks have some pieces now. We get to find out if Beaty can coach.
The offense, with a new coordinator and potential new difference-makers at quarterback, running back, and receiver and on the offensive line, has a chance at a decent-sized turnaround. The defense, with a line disruptive enough to absorb some potential regression in the back, has a chance to sustain last year’s gains. And since your road performance tends to come around last, KU’s solid home form last year could be a sign of where the Jayhawks are headed.
That doesn’t mean either “chance” will actually happen, and it doesn’t mean that KU will ever do better on the road. A boatload of transfers didn’t really help Charlie Weis, after all, and wow, is that a green secondary.
Still, we’re just talking about a chance here.