Note: This story is a part of the 2012 KU football preview section that appears in Sunday's Journal-World.
Even though Kansas University football program’s 2012 nonconference schedule will be interrupted by a home game against new Big 12 foe TCU, first-year KU coach Charlie Weis loves the way things look for his rebuilding ballclub.
“The way the schedule’s set up, if you look at the first four games, you couldn’t have set it up any better,” Weis said. “It’s almost like it’s its own season. I’m talking on paper.”
With the Big 12 football schedule being an annual beast for any and all comers, scheduling manageable nonconference games has become crucial, especially for schools such as Kansas, which has won just two league contests in the past three seasons.
But just because Weis likes the way things are laid out does not mean he thinks any of this year’s schedule will be particularly easy.
With home games against South Dakota State and Rice to kick things off, and a road game against Northern Illinois in Week 4 to round things out, Weis believes two things about this year’s nonconference foes. First, all three of them will enter their games against the Jayhawks believing they will win. And, second, if KU doesn’t get it together early and gain some much needed momentum and confidence, they just might.
“You don’t think South Dakota State is preparing to come in here and beat us?” Weis said this summer. “Well, they are. That’s what they expect to do.”
SDSU certainly appears to be the easiest game on KU’s 2012 schedule. Then again, many probably believed that to be true about North Dakota State in 2010. However, even Weis acknowledges that getting started with SDSU is a perfect opener for a KU team taking the field together for the first time.
“You look at South Dakota State and say, ‘OK, here’s a nice, solid team,” Weis said. “But if you had to pick a team, which team do you want to try to get going on? South Dakota State’s a good team for us to start off with.”
The Jackrabbits are led by reigning Missouri Valley Conference freshman of the year, quarterback Austin Sumner, who threw for 2,300 yards and 16 TDs in 2011, and red-shirt freshman running back Reginald Gandy.
SDSU, which finished 5-6 in 2011, also features a strong front seven on defense, but has a young and inexperienced secondary.
Week 2 brings another tough challenge in Rice, but Weis likes the challenge.
“Rice is another good opponent for us to get going on,” Weis said. “Notice I didn’t say easy on either one of those. It’s just good games to be playing for the first two games.”
The Owls, who finished 4-8 last season, are led by three preseason all-Conference USA selections in senior tight end Luke Willson, junior kicker Chris Boswell and sophomore cornerback Bryce Callahan.
Willson was a consensus all-league pick and has been named to the Mackey Award watch list. Callahan was named a freshman All-American by the Sporting News in 2011, and Boswell connected on 17 of 21 field-goal attempts and made 31 of 32 extra-point tries.
KU’s final nonconference game comes both after its conference opener — Week 3 vs. TCU — and on the road at Northern Illinois. Although many coaches prefer to play their nonconference games at home, Weis said he liked the idea of getting a test run in DeKalb, Ill.
“Of all the games on the road, you’d rather play your nonconference opponent first so the players get used to having to go on the road,” he said.
Last season, the Jayhawks and Huskies entertained fans with an offensive shootout won by Kansas on its final offensive play of the night. Both teams will trot different horses onto the field this season, but the biggest difference figures to be at quarterback, where KU will be playing with veteran Dayne Crist and NIU likely still will be adjusting to life after former standout Chandler Harnish, who graduated and was drafted by Indianapolis in the seventh round of last April’s NFL Draft.
While NIU coach Dave Doeren remains familiar with Lawrence and the KU program from his days an assistant under former KU coach Mark Mangino, that advantage grows smaller and smaller with each year that passes. Beyond that, Doeren’s squad probably will not be able to take much from last year’s experience of playing the Jayhawks because KU is led by a whole new coaching staff and went through an offseason overhaul of its roster.
“By the time you get through with those four games and you get to the bye the last week in September,” Weis said, “we should have a pretty good idea of who we are, what we can do and what we can’t do and let’s go from there.”