At least one national pundit believes Kansas football is ready to climb in 2020
Was last year’s 3-9 record a baseline for Les Miles and the Kansas football program, and are the Jayhawks bound to make more progress in 2020? At least one national pundit seems to think so.
To be fair, Brandon Marcello of 247 Sports did not put a win total on his 2020 predicted order of finish for the Big 12 Conference, which was released early last month. But he did have the Jayhawks slated to finish in eighth place in the conference standings, at least hinting at a couple of victories in conference play.
“I just love the offense, and I think it’s going to be enough in the Big 12 to get it done and move up a few spots,” Marcello said in a recent podcast on 247’s KU site. “I’m not very high on West Virginia rebounding this year. And Texas Tech I’m still not sold on. Hey, Tech lost to Kansas last year. … I think Kansas is going to do just enough to (start) climbing the steps out of the cellar.”
For context, KU has not finished higher than ninth since the 2008 season, when the Jayhawks went 4-4 in conference play and finished third in the Big 12 North. Two seasons of last-place finishes in the North followed. And since the conference went to one 10-team division in 2012, the Jayhawks have finished in the Big 12 cellar in every year except 2014.
So why will 2020 be different? Marcello said it comes down to a couple of key figures on the offense.
“The No. 1 reason to me was the offensive turnaround under (offensive coordinator) Brent Dearmon,” Marcello said. “That kind of gave me a little bit more 'oomph' to make this decision. Plus, I mean, I love Pooka Williams (Jr.) and what he’s been able to do.”
Both reasons seem sound. Williams has earned multiple first-team all-Big 12 honors — including a preseason nod this season — in his time with the Jayhawks. And the KU offense took a major step forward in both scoring and yards per game after Dearmon took over midway through the 2019 season.
But that was with a fifth-year quarterback who had played in 25 career games (including nine starts) heading into the 2019 season. KU does not have that in 2020. It remains to be seen if Dearmon can get the same kind of performance that he got from Carter Stanley out of any of his top candidates for the QB job this fall — true freshman Jalon Daniels and returners Miles Kendrick and Thomas MacVittie.
Between them, those three players have appeared in eight Division I football games, with MacVittie playing in three games on special teams during his time at Pitt and attempting one pass for the Jayhawks a season ago and Kendrick playing in four games last year before redshirting.
Stanley’s season, which went down as the best by any KU quarterback since Todd Reesing, was a pleasant surprise for Kansas fans. If Dearmon can get something similar out of any of this year’s quarterbacks, it will go a long way toward proving Marcello’s prediction right.
That’s a big if, though, especially considering the pandemic squashed all of spring practice and cut into KU’s summer workouts.
One key factor driving Marcello’s theory was that the Big 12 in 2020 will feature enough talented teams that they’ll beat up on each other throughout the season, preventing the conference from becoming top-heavy.
While that could lead to parity in any conference, I’m not sure it helps KU’s case for a climb this season.
It seems to me that the Jayhawks would benefit much more from having a couple of bad teams at the bottom of the Big 12 — or at least programs facing down years — in order to climb out of the cellar. Perhaps Texas Tech and West Virginia will be those teams, but both will be starting from more enviable positions than KU.
According to ESPN.com’s 2020 preseason Football Power Index rankings, all of Kansas' Big 12 foes rank in the top 50 heading into the season. The Jayhawks, meanwhile, sit at No. 104.
What’s more, KU, according to SportsBettingDime.com, has the 18th-toughest schedule in the country in 2020 and is the only Big 12 team in the top 25 of that category. Presumably, that’s because Kansas is the only program that gets to play all of those other highly ranked Big 12 schools.
Preseason rankings aren't everything, and it’s entirely possible that Kansas could use its 3-9 start under Miles as a building block for even better days ahead. But those who have followed the program for a decade or longer tend to have an "I'll believe it when I see it" mindset.
Intentionally or otherwise, Marcello’s pick is bold.