A year ago, the Kansas University football team’s lone nonconference road game ended in a last-second loss to South Florida on a balmy Friday night in Tampa.
Entering the 2009 season, the Jayhawks are hoping this year’s early-season road trip — to El Paso, Texas, for a Sept. 12 matchup with UTEP — goes a little better.
And while the Miners are no South Florida — they’re coming off a 5-7 season and haven’t advanced to a bowl since 2005 — they aren’t exactly chopped liver, either.
Junior quarterback Trevor Vittatoe turned in Todd Reesing-like numbers during his sophomore season, throwing for 3,274 yards and a school-record 33 touchdowns (compared to just nine interceptions). He returns his top two receivers in Jeff Moturi and Kris Adams, meanwhile, who combined for 23 touchdowns a season ago — fourth most in the nation for a receiving duo.
Donald Buckram and Vernon Frazier likely will battle for the starting running back spot, and the offensive line will return largely intact, with the only hole coming at the center position.
Defensively, UTEP will need to take a big step forward.
Injuries played a significant role in the Miners’ struggles last season, as the team allowed 469.8 yards and 37 points per game, but fifth-year coach Mike Price is hoping the return of safety Braxton Amy, who missed the 2008 season because of an ACL injury, will help solidify the defensive unit.
One thing the Miners will have going for them is the luxury of playing at home. Last season, the Jayhawks finished just 1-3 in true road games, and their single victory came only after they rebounded from a 20-point deficit against lowly Iowa State to win, 35-33.
Southern Miss quietly establishing itself
After a difficult start last year, Southern Miss pieced together a late-season run that pushed their streak of consecutive bowl games to seven.
The Golden Eagles enter the season on a five-game winning streak after topping Troy in the New Orleans Bowl to close out 2008, and with eight players returning on both offense and defense, Southern Miss will look to make a run in the Conference USA East.
Senior running back Damion Fletcher has rushed for 1,000 or more yards in each of his first three seasons with the Golden Eagles, including a Conference USA-best 1,313 yards in 2008, and is joined by 1,000-yard receiver DeAndre Brown, who finished with 1,117 yards and 12 touchdowns in his freshman season.
The defense loses standout linebacker Gerald McRath, who left early for the NFL, but welcomes back its entire secondary and second-team all-league defensive tackle Anthony Gray.
QB Lewis leads Duke into Lawrence
While his team stumbled to a 4-8 finish in ’08, senior quarterback Thaddeus Lewis provided a bright spot for the Blue Devils, doing enough to earn all-ACC second-team honors, throwing for 2,171 yards and 15 touchdowns while playing in coach David Cutcliffe’s pro-style offense.
Besides Lewis, though, the Blue Devils have little to hang their hat on. Receivers Johnny Williams and Donovan Varner combined for 51 receptions as true freshmen last season, and kicker Nick Maggio connected on 11 of 14 field goals, but the team’s offensive line returns just two players, and a defense that ranked just 60th in the nation last fall brings back just five total players.
Duke hasn’t reached a bowl game since 1994, and faced with an ACC schedule that appears to be predictably daunting, it will take a surprising showing for them to put that streak to an end this season.
Northern Colorado looking to rebound from 1-10 year
Selected by media and coaches to finish eighth in the nine-team Big Sky Conference, Northern Colorado likely will kick off its season Sept. 5 as a significant underdog to the Jayhawks.
The Bears finished just 1-10 last season, but the silver lining is that they lost five games by seven points or less. With 16 total starters returning, they’ll look to improve their conference standing under fourth-year coach Scott Downing.