Kansas in elite company

Earning back-to-back bowl bids, not as difficult as it once was because of bowl inflation, still ranks as an accomplishment because it’s a school first for Kansas University. Winning three bowl games in a four-year span, another school first, can be accomplished with a victory against Minnesota on Wednesday evening in Tempe, Ariz.

Yet, it’s another school-first milestone that seems to have generated the most interest among Kansas players. Defeating Minnesota would give KU 20 victories in two seasons, a noteworthy accomplishment, even in these times of longer seasons.

Consider 10 schools with richer football traditions than Kansas that don’t have a shot at cobbling together 20 victories in the past two seasons: Cal, Florida State, Miami, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Oregon, UCLA and Wisconsin.

Alabama, Ball State and LSU need to win their bowl games to join the 20-win club.

The 17 schools already in: Oklahoma has 23 and counting, USC 22 and counting. Boise State finished with 22. Cincinnati, Florida, Missouri, Ohio State, Texas and Utah have 21 and counting. Brigham Young finished with 21. Boston College, Georgia, Penn State, Texas Tech, Tulsa, Virginia Tech and West Virginia have 20 and counting.

“That’s pretty impressive, if you ask me, for any team, especially for a Big 12 team,” junior cornerback Justin Thornton said. “To be able to rattle off 20 wins in two seasons is definitely something special. It’s nice to be able to accomplish something like that, but of course we have our goals set higher than that. It’s been in the air. A couple of coaches have mentioned it a couple of times.”

Senior Dexton Fields, shooting for a third bowl victory, pointed out Kansas is 32-17 during the senior class’ time.

“We haven’t had a losing season since we stepped on the field and that says a lot about the kinds of players that are being brought into the program,” Fields said.

A look at KU’s performance in Big 12 games over the past two seasons provides an even better indicator of the progress the program has made under coach Mark Mangino. Before 2007, the most victories Kansas ever had in an eight-game Big 12 season was three. The Jayhawks have gone 11-5 in the past two seasons, posting their two best records, 7-1 and 4-4.

“I think that would be a huge step for our program, 20 wins in two years,” junior defensive tackle Caleb Blakesley said. “I think for a lot of guys, back-to-back bowl games isn’t good enough. They want back-to-back bowl victories and 20 wins in two seasons.”

Other motivating factors?

“Giving our seniors a chance to go out with a victory,” Blakesley said. “Also, 8-5 would be better than 7-6. It looks better, and it feels better.”

Mangino never misses an opportunity to remind the players that a bowl game is not a vacation.

“The goal around here is always to win,” Blakesley said. “When we went to the Fort Worth Bowl (2005), it was always ingrained that it was a business trip. You don’t want to be known for going to bowl games, you want to be known for winning them.”

— Sports editor Tom Keegan can be reached at 832-7147.