This story is part of the KU Edition, a special section that runs in the Lawrence Journal-World.
Heading into last year’s season opener, Kansas University’s football team figured it would kick off the Turner Gill era in style with a victory over visiting FCS school North Dakota State.
But the Bison had other plans. In one of the biggest upsets in school history, Kansas was shocked by NDSU, 6-3, and the Jayhawks spent the rest of the 2010 season trying to crawl out of the hole they dug themselves in the opening week.
With a similar opponent — FCS foe McNeese State — visiting Lawrence for the opener in 2011, don’t expect the Jayhawks to be anything but locked in from the opening gun.
“We learned from last year that we can’t discount McNeese State,” senior tight end Tim Biere said. “We didn’t take North Dakota State lightly by any means, but it happened, and we gotta remember why it did.”
Thinking too deeply about the reasons just opens old wounds. So the Jayhawks have moved on. They’ve had their minds fixed on McNeese State since the opening day of summer workouts, and they’re taking the common approach that their most important game is their next.
“We’re trying win every single football game,” coach Gill said. “We’ll deal with the conference when we get to the conference, but every game is important to us. We gotta take care of McNeese State in the first game, and then take care of the rest as they come.”
The way Biere sees it, the opener, which will be played against a team picked to win the Southland Conference, is important for a couple of reasons.
“I figure you gotta get a couple wins in the nonconference season to keep on pace to become bowl-eligible,” Biere said. “So we’re definitely taking those (nonconference) games really seriously.”
Biere’s other reason is more in line with the reason KU fans started to get excited about football in recent years in the first place.
“I think you need some games where you blow somebody out and get your second-, third- and fourth-string guys in the game in a situation where you’re winning, not when you’re down by a bunch of points,” Biere said.
Doing that might not be easy, as the Cowboys enter 2011 at 6-5 overall and 5-2 in conference play, a feat that marked the fifth straight season in which MSU finished in the top two in its league.
The small school in Lake Charles, La., which boasts an enrollment of 8,900 students, returns more than half of its starters from last season and had eight players picked to the preseason All-Southland team this summer. That list included senior running back Andre Anderson, offensive lineman Miguel Gauthreaux, defensive tackle Desmund Lighten and junior place kicker Josh Lewis.
Though McNeese State has the attention of the Jayhawks, their trip to Memorial Stadium on Sept. 3 won’t generate nearly as much interest as KU’s next two nonconference games.
Georgia Tech is without question the marquee game on Kansas’ pre-Big 12 schedule. For starters, the Yellow Jackets play in the ACC, reached a bowl game last season and will welcome KU into what figures to be one heck of an environment Sept. 17 in Atlanta.
“Going to that atmosphere will prepare us for when we go into Texas and Texas A&M and places like that,” Biere said.
In addition to passing the eye test, the Yellow Jackets most likely will be thinking revenge after being embarrassed in Lawrence last season. Georgia Tech came into that game ranked 15th in the country. The Jayhawks were coming off their opening-week loss to North Dakota State. But KU shocked everyone that day and set the tone for the Yellow Jackets’ roller-coaster season.
Paul Johnson, who won ACC coach of the year honors during his first two seasons at Georgia Tech, dealt with a bunch of injuries and major inconsistency throughout 2010. As a result, the Jackets finished with their first losing record (6-7) in 15 seasons.
Taking a page out of Gill’s playbook, Johnson opened up every position to competition this spring, a move that seemed to return the passion and intensity to his roster.
Junior Tevin Washington will take over for multi-year starter Joshua Nesbitt at QB. Washington started four games last year after an injury ended Nesbitt’s career, and that experience, particularly in GT’s complicated misdirection rushing attack, should go a long way in 2011.
Running back Charles Perkins has been selected by several as the preseason ACC newcomer of the year, so just because the Jackets are reloading does not mean they’re devoid of talent.
Defensively, the Yellow Jackets play a 3-4 set and send speedy playmakers all over the field. Junior linebacker Julian Burnett and senior linebacker Steven Sylvester should anchor Georgia Tech’s defense, giving Johnson a much-needed rock in the middle.
Northern Illinois enters 2011 with a new head coach and a handful of question marks. Dave Doeren, a former Kansas assistant, takes over for Jerry Kill, who left for Minnesota, and likely will bring with him the same kind of toughness he was known for as the defensive coordinator at Wisconsin for the past three seasons.
Picked by many to win the MAC West, the Huskies return most of their starting unit from an offense that finished 12th in the country in scoring offense in 2010 (38 ppg) and a few key members of a defense that gave up just 19 points per game.
Fifth-year senior QB Chandler Harnish returns after an all-conference season in 2010 in which he threw for 2,500 yards, 21 TDs and just five interceptions. He’ll be backed by running back Chad Spann, who has rushed for 2,400 yards and 41 TDs in the past two seasons combined.
The Huskies’ receiving corps features a group of veterans as senior Willie Clark, junior Martel Moore and senior Nathan Palmer finished 2010 as the top three targets for Harnish.
The one question with the Huskies remains on defense, where they lost seven starters from last year’s squad. Add to that the fact that NIU lost its starting place kicker, long snapper and holder to graduation as well, and it’s clear to see that, although the Huskies return a ton of talent, they very much are a team in transition.
This match-up, Sept. 10 in Lawrence, could go a long way in determining how the rest of the season goes for both squads.