Every school’s football schedule has a litmus test. The season opener vs. South Dakota State of the Football Championship Subdivision qualifies as Kansas University’s.
It’s not supposed to work that way, but given where KU is at the moment, combined with the quality of the FCS opponent, the first game shapes up as the toughest one to forecast.
John Stiegelmeier is in his 19th season as head coach of the school located in Brookings, South Dakota. Stiegelmeier didn’t have to use any time or energy to educate players on new terminology, schemes, etc.
David Beaty is in his first season as a college head coach, and his staff installed an Air Raid offense, inheriting talent that at some positions didn’t necessarily fit perfectly to the up-tempo attack.
South Dakota State relies heavily on a power running game. The Jackrabbits line up and try to outgrunt opponents. The Jayhawks prefer quick hits to head-on ones.
The Jacks’ offensive strength matches up with a projected defensive weakness of the ‘Hawks, size and strength up the middle.
A potential KU strength, the running threat presented by quarterback Montell Cozart, matches up with SDSU’s vulnerability. A year ago, the Jackrabbits repeatedly were burned by scrambling quarterbacks running for first downs on game-changing plays. Cozart has the speed to expose them, but last season didn’t use his speed, his feet slowed by him thinking too much, reacting too little.
South Dakota State lost five games last season. The first was to Missouri in a game in which the Tigers led by just three points early in the third quarter. Two of the losses were to national-champion North Dakota State, one to runner-up Illinois State.
Zach Zenner, who has had an impressive exhibition season with the Detroit Lions, had three consecutive 2,000-yard rushing seasons, so he’ll be missed. Three players from KU’s defense — linebacker Ben Heeney and cornerbacks JaCorey Shepherd and Dexter McDonald — went in the NFL Draft.
The visitors for the 11 a.m. kickoff one week from Saturday bring roster stability, the home athletes superior agility but a lack of history with each other as teammates.
Emotionally, the Jackrabbits crave what would be their first victory vs. a Football Bowl Subdivision school. The Jayhawks won’t have a better opportunity for a victory on the 2015 schedule.
Remember, it doesn’t necessarily require great teams to produce a great football game, just great competition and an abundance of drama.