Friday, April 13, 2007

Kansas Spring Football Preview


Can anybody explain to me what makes Mark Mangino a respected coach? I haven’t quite figured that one out yet. He always gets ranked in the middle of the pack in Big XII coach rankings (always significantly ahead of Gary Pinkel, it seems), and other than coming up with a great gameplan for stopping Brad Smith and leading KU to exactly one winning record, what exactly has he accomplished?

And I don’t mean this in a “Mizzou hates Kansas” kind of way. I really don’t care about Kansas in football—if I had to list out the “must win” football games in any given season, it would be 1) Nebraska, 2) Kansas State, 3) OU/Texas (whichever one we’re playing that year), and 4) Kansas. I mean...seriously, what has he accomplished to earn the extension that he got last August or the general reputation as a decent coach, especially with academic fraud on his recent resume? He’s “paid his dues” and “proven he can win”? Win what exactly? The Fort Worth Bowl?

Anyway, just asking.

2006 was a relatively disappointing season for Kansas when you consider that Mangino did in fact get a contract extension in August despite the academic fraud. You have to figure that meant KU figured it was worth the impending punishment for the impending football success. However, instead of football success, KU found themselves carrying a 3-5 record (with losses to Toledo and Baylor) into the final month of the season. They snuck by Colorado and whooped Kansas State and Iowa State to move into the showdown with Missouri at 6-5. And with the “Mangino owns Pinkel” theory set in stone and Mizzou in a bit of a freefall, lots and lots of people picked Kansas to win. However, it turned out that Mangino only owned Brad Smith, and Pinkel moved to 2-0 against Mangino in Smith-less years (and 3-3 overall). Mizzou whooped KU, 42-17, and KU failed to secure a bowl bid.

And I should mention that, during the MU-KU game, Mangino...considered by leaps and bounds a better coach than Pinkel, completely forgot that he had the Big XII’s leading rusher on his team, giving Jon Cornish only a handful of carries even though he was averaging 8.4 per carry.

I seriously don’t get the Mangino infatuation. Doug? You want to explain to me what I’m missing here?

Key Returnees

As a whole, KU was pretty young last year. However, their best player and workhorse, Cornish, was a senior. In 2007, sophomore QB Kerry Meier loses his training wheels. He battled injury and inconsistency as a redshirt freshman; he single-handedly won and lost the Toledo game several times before eventually losing it for good in OT.

(Honestly, the player Meier most reminds me of is Kirk Farmer: flashes of brilliance, long stretches of horrible inconsistency, occasional athleticism, flowing blonde locks...)

Anyway, Meier (or Todd Reesing, who is apparently putting up a pretty good fight for the starting QB job) will have some decent receivers at his disposal. Junior Dexton Fields caught 45 passes and scored 5 TD’s a year ago, and senior TE Derek Fine had a solid 25 catches and 5 TD’s. Plus, according to ESPN, defensive backs Aqib Talib (who scored a receiving TD against Mizzou last year) and Justin Thornton are both getting in a little time at WR, a la Charles Gordon. Mangino has done a decent job in previous years of putting together a solid-but-not-spectacular receiving corps, and 2007 will be no different. However, the running game is, as Gary Pinkel would say, critically important, and losing Cornish hurts. Whoever replaces Cornish (it appears Jake Sharp is the leader at the moment) will be running behind a retooled O-line as well. Not an encouraging sign.

As for the defense...well, first of all, until I read the ESPN article linked above, I didn’t realize that KU had the worst pass defense (yardage-wise, anyway) in the country. That’s a pretty tough feat to pull when you have an all-conference cornerback in Talib, but credit Mangino’s Jayhawks for pulling it off. In all, you had to figure that KU’s defense would take a step backwards in ’06 after graduating almost every major contributor off of the stellar ’05 corps, and they most certainly took that step.

Spring Developments

Well, has almost nothing in regard to Spring Practice coverage, so I’m flying mostly blind here. It appears that the main storylines of the spring have been 1) Meier versus Reesing at QB, and 2) creating a pass rush out of thin air. It’s a recurring theme as I do these seems like every team either lost their good defensive ends or needs far better production out of last year’s set.

Fun With Numbers

Here were the five statistical categories that were most directly related to KU’s success/failure last year (I have redone the list with a different, more accurate correlation formula than the one used for this post):

1. 3rd Down Conversion %
2. Opponents’ Total Plays
3. Total 3rd Down Conversions
4. Opponents’ Rushing Yards
5. Opponents’ Total First Downs
These categories were a lot like those on Colorado’s list—all about ball control. If they were able to convert on 3rd down and keep the ball out of opponents’ hands, they were successful. That would explain how they had a bit more success as the season wore on (until the Mizzou game, anyway)—Cornish emerged as a threat more with each progressing game, it seemed, and that threat opened up KU’s offense to more success. Well...if they were dependent on Cornish for ball control, they might be in trouble this year. Jake Sharp is supposedly the same type of runner as Cornish, only he’s 5’11, 190—15 pounds lighter than the bruising Cornish. The defense should improve at least marginally from experience, but ball control works both ways—somebody’s going to have to step up on offense, and that’s still up in the air.

The non-conference schedule is...well, I’m not sure how tough it is or isn’t. They host both Central Michigan and Toledo, which should be wins but certainly aren’t guaranteed. Their other two games are against SE Lousiana and Florida International, so you figure they should be 3-1 at worst. The Big XII slate starts with three out of four games on the road (at Kansas State, Baylor, at Colorado, at ATM) before hosting Nebraska on 11/3. If they emerge from the NU game at 2-3 in conference, they should be able to pick off at least one of the three final games to reach 6 wins. Best case scenario for this team is 7-8 wins, but I’m thinking 5-6 is more likely.