Note: This story is part of the 2010-11 KU football preview section that appeared in Saturday's Journal-World.
First-year Kansas University football coach Turner Gill won’t have to wait long to get his first taste of big-time football as a Jayhawk.
Unlike in most seasons — for most teams — the Jayhawks have as challenging a nonconference schedule as they’ve had in years in 2010.
A home date with Georgia Tech and a road trip to Southern Miss highlight the early portion of the 2010 schedule, with both contests looming as potentially dangerous games.
In Georgia Tech, the Jayhawks will be welcoming a team that competed in the Orange Bowl last season.
GT lost a lot of sparkle from last year’s 11-3 squad, but the Yellow Jackets return several talented pieces, including 16 starters, and bring a tricky attack to Lawrence on Sept. 11.
Led by quarterback Josh Nesbitt, the Jackets employ what’s known as a double-slot option offense, which demands extreme focus and discipline from opposing defenses.
Georgia Tech averaged 56 rushing attempts per game in 2009 and should approach a similar number this season.
According to the Jayhawks, one of the best ways to slow the Georgia Tech rushing attack is by keeping it off the field.
That could prove to be a challenge for such an inexperienced team so early in the season.
“There’s definitely going to be some growing pains, but we have some starters with experience,” KU senior Brad Thorson said. “By the time we get to Georgia Tech, we better be able to run the ball on them. They’re going to be trying to stuff the ball down our throats.”
Added senior Chris Harris: “Their offense, they run it the best.”
Defensively, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson added defensive coordinator Al Groh — a former head coach — to his staff, but also switched defensive schemes from a 4-3 to a 3-4. That switch, combined with the fact that the Yellow Jackets were not afraid to give up points in 2009, make this game a potential shootout.
Another early-season test is the Jayhawks’ road game at Southern Miss on Friday, Sept. 17. Last year, KU knocked off Southern Miss, 35-28, at Memorial Stadium but needed a big-time defensive stand late in the game to preserve the victory.
USM coach Larry Fedora has his program rolling, and wide receiver DeAndre Brown, now a year older, remains one of the most gifted receivers in the nation.
USM finished 7-6 last season and reached a bowl game for the eighth consecutive season.
Quarterbacks Austin Davis and Martevious Young both have legitimate game experience, and both are capable of lining up under center at any point.
The Eagles lost 70 percent of their rushing attack, largely thanks to the graduation of the school’s all-time leading rusher, Damion Fletcher. That should put even more emphasis on Brown, who caught 47 passes for 785 yards and nine TDs last season. Though Brown is a terrific talent, he dealt with all kinds of distractions this spring, ranging from hamstring issues to an arrest at a house party in mid-summer.
In addition to providing good, early-season tests, Gill sees another advantage to facing Georgia Tech and Southern Miss this season.
“When you have an opportunity to be on national television, that’s outstanding, not only for the university, but also for the whole conference,” Gill said. “So I think it’s a great opportunity for us. We’re looking forward to it. Any time you can play on national TV, it’s a great exposure for each university.”
The Georgia Tech game will be shown on Fox Sports Net. KU-Southern Miss will be shown by ESPN.
While those games figure to be tough tasks for the new-look Jayhawks to tackle, many KU starters are looking forward to kicking off the season with such a tough road.
“I think it’s definitely good,” Harris said. “We’re going to be ready by then, but it’s definitely a good test to see how ready we are. You want to play the best teams. That’s how you get your team out there. That’s how you get your name out there. You want to play those guys. Playing good teams like that early is definitely going to show up in the Big 12.”
The Jayhawks’ other two nonconference games this season include a pair of state schools coming to Memorial Stadium.
Kansas opens the 2010 season with a home contest against North Dakota State on Sept. 4 and will close out the non-conference portion of its schedule against New Mexico State on Sept. 25.
In welcoming the Bison to town for the season opener, KU will be facing a team that finished the 2009 season with a 3-8 record. NDSU’s three victories came against Wagner College, Western Illinois and Indiana State. Its most notable loss came late in the season to Missouri State and former KU coach Terry Allen. The Bison also fell at Iowa State, 34-17, during 2009.
Despite the loss of quarterback Nick Mertens (1,348 yards and nine TDs in 2009) the Bison appear to be in good shape at quarterback. Jose Mohler (635 yards and six TDs in limited time) and Brock Jensen both played well during the NDSU spring game, and both showed a good rapport with top returning receiver, Matt Veldman, who caught four balls for 130 yards and two TDs in the spring game and finished with 15 receptions and three touchdowns a season ago.
The biggest question for the NDSU offense will be who picks up the slack left by the departure of tailback Pat Paschall, who recorded 1,400 yards and 16 TDs in 2009.
As for New Mexico State, it comes to Lawrence with low expectations and even less fanfare. Picked to finish eighth in the nine-team WAC in the preseason media and coaches polls, the Aggies return 17 starters from a year ago, including 10 on offense. Add to that new coordinator Mike Dunbar, and the Aggies have hopes for a more potent offensive attack, particularly through the air.
NMSU coach DeWayne Walker will lean on senior running back Seth Smith (1,016 yards on 246 carries) and senior defensive back Davon House (68 tackles and three interceptions) for both leadership and production in 2010.
The Aggies finished 3-10 overall (1-7 in conference) in 2009. Their three victories came by a combined nine points — three-point wins against Prairie View A&M;, New Mexico and Utah State.
Their most notable losses included a 45-0 pasting at Ohio State and a 38-12 loss at home against UTEP. Kansas knocked off UTEP, 34-7, last season, in El Paso, Texas.
Despite the fact that all four games present plenty of interesting challenges and storylines, KU’s leaders are keeping things in perspective.
“It’s a good challenge,” senior Jake Laptad said of the nonconference schedule. “But we’re focusing on taking it one game at a time, so we’re really just worried about the first game.”