Upstarts, Sleeping Giants and One-Hit Wonders.
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The Norm. Going into last year, Kansas' winning percentage since the end of World War II was .455, worse than all but two teams (Iowa State and Kansas State) in the current Big 12 or the old Big Eight, including Baylor (.474). The Jayhawks had zero conference championships in that span, and only one ten-win season, in 1995, the year before KU joined the Big 12, revival leader Glen Mason bolted to Minnesota and the curtain rose on a solid decade of losing:
The slight upward trend since Mark Mangino's arrival in 2002 - minor bowl games in 2003 and 2005, and a .500 regular season in 2006 - was built on non-conference success, wherein the Jayhawks were 12-4 against mostly small-conference punching bags between `03 and `06, while still waiting to break even in Big 12 play for the first time. In five years, KU didn't beat a single team with a winning record in the league.
So last year was a momentous departure in every way - a school record for wins, twice as many conference wins as recorded in any of the previous eleven seasons in the league, and an across-the-board leap statistically:
• Overall: Average of all categories, plus Turnover Margin
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If Kansas partisans bought into the "once a lifetime" cliché, it's because it really was, up to now.
Get Used To It. None of last year's wins can be classified as a fluke or toss-up decided by a friendly call or bounce. The Jayhawks only took two games by less than a touchdown, a four-point win at Colorado and the three-point win in the Orange Bowl, and they led both by double digits with under four minutes to play. Their average margin of victory (26 points per game) was the highest in the country, and even when not padded with non-conference cupcakes, was the highest in Big 12 games (just shy of 19 per game). By the numbers, KU was the most balanced, impressive team in the country. And after the Orange Bowl, you can't say they didn't beat anybody.
The most likely element of that run to carry over is in the passing game, which is almost entirely intact and still in the very saavy, miniature hands of Todd Reesing, system quarterback par excellence. Four different guys last year caught 40 passes, and three are back who caught at least twenty-five. The Big 12 was especially forgiving to pass-happy offenses last year, but the short, quick-hitting system fits Reesing's surgical competence and mediocre arm too perfectly to dismiss its prolific results. Actually, it may have been in the lone loss to Missouri that the offense really showed its chops, when Reesing led four touchdown drives in the second half against a good defense that knew he had to throw his team out of a hole. By the end of the year, it was determined to get its points.
Reesing to the occasion. Damn. Sorry.
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Everything you need to know resides in the fact that most people probably consider that game a toss-up, even after Nebraska finished in a tie for last place in the division, lost in Lawrence by an embarrassing 37 points, bid adieu to its starting quarterback, top receiver and virtually the entire back seven on defense and overhauled the entire coaching staff. Nebraska is Nebraska, see, and Kansas is Kansas, and Nebraska - like Oklahoma, and Texas, and now Missouri - has players. And Kansas' best players, Anthony Collins and Aqib Talib, used the Orange Bowl triumph as an early jump-off point for an NFL payday, along with the leading rusher (Brandon McAnderson), leading receiver (Marcus Henry) and an all-Big 12 defensive tackle (James McClinton). Take a quick look at the recruiting over the last five years, remembering that there is no tradition of reloading here (or plain "loading," for that matter), and try to pick out who, specifically, is likely to make the same kind of impact. The best season in school history was only good enough to land a class that ranked 40th nationally, according to Rivals, and ninth in the conference. Kansas' stars last year were improbable, and as the schedule gets exponentially tougher, history long and short suggests there will be many fewer of them on hand.
Approximate Staying Power. Prepare for maximum skepticism due to the brand, the perceived (and likely real) talent gap and, obviously, the increased level of difficulty. None of the sudden, from-nowhere teams who have struck ten-win seasons without notice have hung around for long; I'm thinking of Oregon State in 2000, Iowa in 2002, Cal in 2004, Rutgers in 2006, even Penn State off a couple dismal years in 2005. None of those teams have matched their "breakout" year since, and none faced the steep incline in opposition Kansas will.
But none of them completely faded away, either, and KU doesn't seem very prone to fall immediately back into obscurity. Assuming Missouri is the same powerhouse it was last year (the Tigers should enter the season with much higher expectations), the Jayhawks can count on at least five other games - Oklahoma, Texas, Texas Tech, South Florida, revamped Nebraska - that project as tougher challenges than any of its regular season wins in `07. If it wins two of those and avoids the odd stumble, people will have to start buying in to the notion of Kansas as a power in the conference.