"So, is the team going to be an better this year?"
It's an interesting question, and one being asked by Kansas fans around water coolers, in sports bars and on the Internet with greater and greater frequency as the Sept. 3 season-opener approaches.
Predicting the final numbers in the win-loss column for the overwhelming majority of college football teams is, and always has been, a lesson in futility. Sure, there are the Oklahomas and Alabamas of the world who typically find a way to win 10 or more games. But for the rest of the pack, things are pretty much a crapshoot.
Just look at the recent history of the Jayhawks on the gridiron for proof. Think anyone predicted 12 wins and an Orange Bowl victory in 2007? No way. Not even the most devoted and optimistic Kansas fan saw that one coming. Likewise, few predicted five wins and no bowl game during the swan song of Todd Reesing, Kerry Meier, Jake Sharp and Dezmon Briscoe in 2009.
And while some were less optimistic than others about the outlook for Head Coach Turner Gill's first season on the Hill prior to the start of the 2010 season, the 3-9 disaster that followed seemingly managed to blindside just about everyone associated with the program - coaches, players and fans.
Despite the degree of difficulty, millions of college football fans throughout the country still make the attempt every year; a group that includes both the many thousands who comprise Jayhawk Nation and, well, us here at Phog.net.
So, what's the answer? Is the team going to be any better this year?
Yes. Well, probably. It sort of depends on how one defines "better." How's that for a murky and unreadable response?
Will the Jayhawks be significantly better in the win-loss column in 2011? It's unlikely. The team's ceiling is probably somewhere in the range of five wins. Should they manage to cross the threshold of six and make a bowl game, it would be indicative of one hell of a step forward and reason for serious optimism in the years ahead.
Should the team once again go 3-9, or improve to just 4-8, the W-L record might not be the most reliable indicator of improvement. Bill Parcells may have once famously stated that "You are what your record says you are," but with all due respect to The Big Tuna, things are different in the NFL where free agency and the draft can change a team's fortunes virtually overnight.
In college, rebuilding efforts aren't completed in a day or a single season.. And make no mistake, that's exactly what's taking place inside the Anderson Family Football Complex right now. Gill and his staff aren't only trying to lay the foundation and build anew, they're still clearing away the rubble from a tumultuous 2009 and a controversial end to Mark Mangino's tenure at Kansas.
It doesn't help that the schedule is, in a word, brutal. The departure of Colorado and Nebraska to the Pac-12 and Big 10 respectively bring the remaining 10 teams into a round-robin format with no conference championship game. That means full doses of all the former South schools each and every year - Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Texas Tech.
But the fun doesn't end there. Throw in a quality MAC opponent in Northern Illinois - whom the Jayhawks take on at Memorial in Week Two - and a road game in Week 3 in Atlanta versus Georgia Tech, and Kansas is looking at one of the toughest schedules in the country.
That's why improvement needs to be something judged with a subjective eye. It's entirely possible this team - with the improved talent, experience and overall health - could finish 4-8 and look obviously and substantially better on the field. No blowouts, close contests and a record that doesn't reflect the true quality of the product on the field.
Still, we think the record ultimately will show improvement. Our official prediction is 5-7, with the number of blowouts among those losses few and far between, as this team takes several obvious steps forward in 2011.
Skeptical? That's okay. Let's take a look at a few of the reasons behind the guarded optimism:
Continuity at quarterback
It's hard to get a rhythm going when the man under center is inexperienced. It's even harder when the identity of that man changes three times during the course of a season. Such was the case with the Jayhawks in 2010.
Sophomore Kale Pick began the season as QB1, then lost the job to redshirt freshman Jordan Webb in Week Two. Webb held the job down for several weeks, going through the typical freshman highs and lows, before suffering an injury versus Texas A&M. This thrust junior college transfer Quinn Mecham into the role, before Webb recovered and assumed control in the season finale versus Missouri.
With Pick settled in comfortably at receiver, Webb dedicated himself physically and mentally during the off-season and - if his coaches and teammates can be counted on as a trustworthy source - has taken massive steps forward as a result. He was officially named the starter last week, and unlike the 2010 season this gives the team a full two weeks to prepare for their opening game, secure in the knowledge of who is under center.
There's a lot to like about Webb. Yes, he made dumb throws at times last season and struggled with his accuracy downfield. So do a lot of freshman. He also showed the toughness of an established veteran, a strong arm and, at times, total command of the huddle. His collegiate debut versus Georgia Tech was probably the best example of all three, and during the annual Spring Game he even flashed some good mobility on the option.
Improved skill position talent
Unless one has been hiding under a rock, every Kansas fan has gotten the message regarding team speed by now. Specifically - there's a lot of it.
Much of that is due to the massive class of freshmen Gill signed in February, many of whom could make an impact during their inaugural campaigns in Crimson and Blue. Darrian Miller, Anthony Pierson, Brandon Bourbon (who redshirted last year), JaCorey Shepherd, Marquis Jackson, Colin Garrett, Ben Heeney and Tunde Bakare (JUCO transfer) all represent upgrades in ballistic athleticism on both sides of the ball.
And there are those among the returning veterans with playmaking ability as well. Huldon Tharp, healthy and recovered from a foot injury that sidelined him for all of 2010, will make an immediate impact at linebacker. Toben Opurum, Daymond Patterson, D.J. Beshears, Bradley McDougald, Keeston Terry, Isiah Barfield, Greg Brown and Tyler Patmon all showed flashes of their ability last season.
One of the most troubling aspects of 2010 was how obviously outmatched the Jayhawks were - as a team - athletically. Teams such as Baylor (yes, Baylor), Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Missouri just made it tough for Kansas to keep up. That playing field has been leveled considerably in 2011, even if much of the talent doing the leveling will be inexperienced.
A healthy offensive line
"It all starts in the trenches" is a football cliche, yes, but it attained that status for a reason. It's because it's true.
Last season, the offensive line was one of the most troubled positions on the entire team - and with a team that struggled with injuries and inexperience as heavily as did the Jayhawks, that's saying something.
Jeff Spikes and Trevor Marrongelli, both starters, were lost for the season (Spikes prior to Week One and Marrongelli just a few games in). Senior Brad Thorson and junior Jeremiah Hatch dealt with injuries of their own all season long, and depth was virtually nonexistent with less than 10 scholarship linemen on the roster.
The signing class of 2011 brings with it five fresh faces, however, many already physically able to step in and compete if needed. It's not ideal to have a true freshman in a position of responsibility on the line, but they're talented and provide depth the team lacked in 2010.
More importantly, the returning veterans are all healthy, as fit as they've ever been thanks to a grueling off-season workout regimen, and a year more comfortable with both offensive line coach J.B. Grimes and the team's offensive philosophy.
Assuming they can stay healthy, the line has the talent to be one of the better units in the Big 12, which will go a long way toward making Webb's life a heck of a lot easier at quarterback.
There are winnable games on this schedule
As was previously mentioned, the list of opponents for Kansas in 2011 is sort of the opposite of a cakewalk. However, that isn't to say there aren't several winnable games on the schedule - not surefire wins, but games where victory should absolutely be within reach.
McNeese State, Northern Illinois, Georgia Tech, Iowa State and Kansas State are all possible Ws, with Texas Tech hovering on the cusp. Beyond that, it's hard not to imagine the Jayhawks needing a few balls to bounce their way in order to find a way to win, because the rest of the conference is so strong.
Gill and his coaching staff have spoken frequently about the difficulties of implementing not just a new gameplan, but a new way of life with a team when a coaching change is made. Terminology, playbooks, expectations...they're all radically different, and it's not unusual for a program to experience growing pains with new leadership at the helm.
With the season-opener just a week away, players and coaches - virtually to a man - have all commented on how much more easily information is flowing along the lines of communication. Players know what to expect from their coaches, and the coaches are more familiar with the extent of each player's abilities.
So there it is, out there for the world to see. Maybe we end up with egg on our face - Lord knows it wouldn't be the first time - but there's sufficient reason for fans to be optimistic that the tide is slowly turning again, this time in favor of the Jayhawks.
Players and coaches are more comfortable. An influx of newcomers has upped the talent profile significantly while creating healthy competition and adding depth all over the field. The team is (mostly) healthy again, and the veterans are in the best shape of their careers thanks to strength coach John Williams and his staff.
Now, all that's left to do is strap 'em on and let things play out on Saturdays. The season can't get here fast enough.