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Archive for Saturday, August 16, 2008

Jayhawks’ league slate loaded

Heavy hitters Oklahoma, Texas, Texas Tech, Missouri on tap

August 16, 2008

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Phil Steele, a college football analyst who annually releases a detailed preseason guide, does not feel particularly good about the Kansas University football team's schedule.

In fact, in his recently released 2008 College Football Preview - which applauds itself as "THE MOST ACCURATE PRESEASON MAGAZINE THE LAST 9 YEARS!" - Steele writes that, "a schedule which has them drawing the top three teams from the (Big 12) South as well as a powerful USF squad on the road has me calling for the Jayhawks to drop 4 or 5 games this year."

While Steele's clairvoyance is not exactly legendary - this is the same man who left Kansas out of his Top 50 preseason poll in a year that the Jayhawks finished 12-1 and earned a No. 7 national ranking - it's hard to dispute this: Kansas' conference schedule appears to be considerably more challenging than the '07 version.

Last season, the Jayhawks managed to avoid the top three teams in the Big 12 South (Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech), each of which won at least nine games and finished the year in the Top 25. This year, they'll face all three, plus a potential Top 10 team in rival Missouri.

Here's a look at each of the Jayhawks' eight conference games in 2008:

Kansas at Iowa State, Oct. 4: Despite finishing the 2007 season 3-9 (2-6 in the Big 12), the Cyclones ended the year 2-1, beating Kansas State and Colorado.

Of course, the loss was a 45-7 thumping at the hands of Kansas University to end the season.

The Cyclones return seven starters on both offense and defense, although they'll need to replace quarterback Bret Meyer, who passed for 2,151 yards last year and started 48 straight games, and receiver Todd Blythe.

Colorado at Kansas, Oct. 11: After a horrid 2006 campaign, Colorado rebounded to finish 6-7 last season and earn a trip to the Independence Bowl.

The Buffaloes implemented a no-huddle offense last spring, and are hoping the move will better utilize receivers Scotty McKnight and Josh Smith. Incoming running back Darrell Scott, one of the nation's most sought-after recruits, also could contribute immediately alongside fellow back Demetrius Sumler.

Defensively, the Buffaloes return eight starters, including all-America candidate George Hypolite.

It's worth noting, too, that Colorado played Kansas to its closest game of the season in '07 before falling, 19-14, in Boulder.

Kansas at Oklahoma, Oct. 18: Universally considered to be the favorite to win their third straight Big 12 title, the Sooners also figure to be a major part of the national championship picture.

The conditions surrounding this game - in Norman, sandwiched between games against Colorado and Texas Tech - means an up-hill battle for the Jayhawks. And that's to say nothing of the Sooners' abundance of talent, notably sophomore quarterback Sam Bradford (3,121 yards, 36 touchdowns in '07).

Three of Bradford's top four targets return, as do running back DeMarco Murray (764 yards, 13 touchdowns) and a defense loaded with playmakers.

Texas Tech at Kansas, Oct. 25: While not a traditional threat to battle for the Big 12 South title, this could be the season Texas Tech comes into its own. Eighteen starters return to a team that finished 9-4 a season ago, and the Red Raiders will bring one of the nation's most potent offensive attacks when they arrive in Lawrence.

Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree return as perhaps the most dangerous quarterback/receiver combinations in the land.

Harrell became one of only six players in NCAA history to throw for more than 5,000 yards in a season when he amassed 5,705 yards and 48 touchdowns last year.

Kansas State at Kansas, Nov. 1: The story of Kansas State's offseason was coach Ron Prince's signing of 19 transfers - not typically a sign that things are going well.

Junior quarterback Josh Freeman threw for 3,353 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, although his favorite target - standout receiver Jordy Nelson - is gone.

So is running back James Johnson, who rushed for 1,106 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, meaning the Wildcats have some serious offensive holes to fill. All-Big 12 defensive end Ian Campbell is one of only five defensive players back, but a number of juco transfers are expected to contribute immediately.

Kansas at Nebraska, Nov. 8: The low point of the Nebraska football team's 2007 season might very well have taken place in Lawrence, when, on Nov. 3, the Cornhuskers were embarrassed, 76-39, in one of the most lopsided games of the Big 12 season.

A year later, fans in Lincoln are hoping new coach Bo Pelini can turn things around - in a hurry.

Defensive question marks remain following a season in which Nebraska gave up the most points (455) in school history, although the offense appears in good shape with the return of running back Marlon Lucky (1,019 yards, nine touchdowns) and senior quarterback Joe Ganz, who took over late in the season to finish the year with 1,435 yards and 16 touchdowns - seven of which came at the expense of Kansas State.

Texas at Kansas, Nov. 15: The last time these two teams tangled, in 2005, the Longhorns handed Kansas a lopsided 66-14 loss. Times have changed a bit since then - a man by the name of Young is now throwing touchdowns on Sunday afternoons in Nashville - but Texas still figures to be a main contender for the Big 12 title.

In what was considered a down year by many in Austin, the Longhorns allowed 371.2 yards per game en route to finishing the season 10-3 (5-3 in conference play) a season ago. New defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, formerly of Auburn, is hoping to improve the defense, which will feature a new look after losing seven starters from last year's team.

Quarterback Colt McCoy threw 18 interceptions as a sophomore in '07, but coach Mack Brown is hoping that an added year of experience and the return of a seasoned offensive line will help that number drop.

The biggest challenge offensively will be replacing running back Jamaal Charles, who finished with 1,619 yards and 18 touchdowns last season.

Kansas at Missouri (Arrowhead Stadium), Nov. 29: Entering last year's Border War in Kansas City, Mo., a victory was the only thing that stood in the way of Kansas and a Big 12 North title.

After falling behind early, however, the Jayhawks couldn't recover, losing, 36-28, at Arrowhead Stadium in the team's only loss of the season.

Missouri, coming off a 12-2 season and a victory in the Cotton Bowl, looks to be equally explosive this season. Heisman Trophy finalist Chase Daniel returns to lead an offense that also features all-American candidate Jeremy Maclin, a receiver, and tight end Chase Coffman.

The loss of running back and Cotton Bowl MVP Tony Temple won't help, but senior Jimmy Jackson and sophomore Derrick Washington will attempt to fill the void.

Another preseason all-American, free safety William Moore, heads a defense that was surprisingly efficient in 2007, holding three conference opponents to 10 points or fewer.

The Tigers also feature one of the nation's most dangerous kick returners in Maclin.

It's hard to imagine this year's version of the game surpassing the drama and magnitude of last year's - which undoubtedly was the biggest game in the history of the rivalry.

But with two programs seemingly on the rise, there should be no lack of excitement surrounding it, either.

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