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[2019] Big XII Network Season in Review: Kansas Jayhawks

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Kansas had a record-setting offense and a record-deflating defense, and that balanced out to a 9-4 season with a roster that carried so much promise. Life after Eric Jennings begins now.

 

Prediction: 11-1 (6-1)

 

Record: 9-4 (4-3)

 

Results

 

Washington (W 40-10)
at West Virginia (W 31-24)

at Iowa State (L 24-29)
vs. East Carolina (L 35-38)

Kansas State (W 37-7)
at TCU (W 20-10)

Oklahoma (L 30-33 OT)
Baylor (L 27-37)

at Notre Dame (W 50-28)
Oklahoma State (W 34-28)
at Rice (W 30-10)
Missouri (W 35-24)
Alamo Bowl vs. Oregon (W 37-31)

 

Offensive MVP: QB Eric Jennings: 315-470 for 4132 yards, 35 TD, 7 INT

 

Defensive MVP: CB Bradley Spurlock: 6 INT, 3 TD, 15 tackles

 

Top NFLHC Draftee: QB Eric Jennings, #84 to the Denver Broncos

 

Top Freshman Recruit: DE Jamari Callahan 6-0 250 Fr Basehor-Linwood (Basehor KS) 2.5 of 5.0 [Contain]

 

Top JuCo Recruit: RB Rod Fulton 5-11 180 (Jr) Hutchinson CC (Hutchinson KS) 3.0 of 4.5 [Speed]

 

Recruiting Ranking: #52 overall (#7 Big XII)

 

Bowl in Review

 

It wasn't always pretty, and it wasn't always clean. But in Eric Jennings's final game in a Kansas uniform, the Jayhawks upset #17 Oregon to nab the senior quarterback's first career bowl win. Kansas's offense started the game in practically the worst way possible: Jennings threw his 7th interception of the season, an underthrown ball that Donte Terry picked off. Kansas escaped any punishment when Thomas McMahan's 50-yard field goal attempt landed short, but his second attempt from the same distance six minutes later would put the Ducks up 3-0. For a while after that, it would be all Kansas. Joel Hawley tied it up with a 29-yard field goal of his own late in the first quarter, and Jennings found fellow fifth-year senior Bradley Cantu for the go-ahead touchdown pass with 8:22 to play in the second. Jalen Clayton punched in a 2-yard score to make it 17-3 with just over two minutes before the half, only for Jason Baum to answer on a 44-yard nuclear strike to Mike Jones to cut the lead in half before the half. After that defensive lapse to close the second quarter, Kansas came out with guns blazing in the third. Another Hawley field goal made it a two-possession game, and a second Jennings touchdown pass (this one to Malcolm Davis) gave them their largest lead yet at 27-10. They didn't quite put Oregon away, though, and another Baum touchdown pass cut it back to 10. Cue another Kansas run in the fourth quarter. A Joel Hawley field goal made it 30-17. An Oregon kick return put them in great field position--which was promptly erased when Thierno Hayes batted a pass at the line and came down with it himself for his first career interception. When Jalen Clayton crossed the goal line for the second time, Kansas had its new largest lead of the game at 37-17. And yet, that still wasn't enough to put it away. Jason Baum's touchdown run with 3:50 to play gave them some hope, and Kristian Hope's 59-yard punt return touchdown with 2:05 on the clock was a cherry bomb that cut the lead down to 37-31. Oregon kicked it onside, but could not recover the ball and did not have any timeouts. Jennings took a couple extra steps back on each kneel to burn out the clock, and that was that. Kansas gets its first bowl win since the 2015 Alamo Bowl (also an upset of Oregon), and Eric Jennings gets to go out a winner.

 

The Good

 

First of all, they beat Missouri by a margin of 35-24. But more on that later. Kansas had arguably the best offense in the country this season other than Syracuse's. They averaged a school-record 33.1 points per game, trailing only the Orange's 34.5. They were 2nd in opponent-adjusted scoring. They exceeded the national average of 22.7 points per game in 12 out of 13 games this season (and won the only game where they didn't). They were led by a seemingly regenerated Eric Jennings, who bounced back from a topsy-turvy junior year to set records as a senior. He won the Johnny Unitas and Kellen Moore awards, finished with 4132 yards passing and 35 touchdowns through the air (both are Jayhawk records), and completed 67.0% of his passes. He also became the leading passer in Big XII history, finishing his career with 909 completions, 11709 yards, and 91 touchdowns--all Big XII records. The team finished with 9 wins for the second straight year and the third time overall. They won their third straight over Kansas State, scored a team-record 50 points in a win over Notre Dame, and turned back a Missouri rally to win their second straight Border War. They closed the year on a 5-game winning streak, tied for their second-longest ever. Without any context, that's a pretty darn successful season.

 

The Bad 

 

With context, though, the Jayhawks once again left something on the table. They lost to Iowa State in week 4 to put themselves on the wrong foot. After a bye week, they dropped a stinker in a 38-35 loss to East Carolina. In two games, they went from #5 in the country to unranked and wouldn't get above #24 the rest of the year. After they'd picked themselves up with wins over Kansas State and TCU, they came up on their two most important games of the season: home dates with Oklahoma and Baylor that would determine if they still had a chance to repeat as conference champions. They squandered an early 14-0 lead against Oklahoma and lost in overtime, then fell in a shootout to Baylor that dropped them to 4-4 and out of the division picture entirely. They'd finish tied for second, two games behind Oklahoma; 2016 is the only other year in which Kansas hasn't finished within a game of the division title. They racked up 4 losses despite the nation's second-best offense because the defense was Swiss cheese. They gave up 23.8 points per game, which ranks 71st in the country and 7th in the Big XII. In their four losses, they gave up an average of 34.25 points per game. They held just 4 opponents under the national scoring average--the fact that none of those four broke through the 10-point barrier illustrates the unfulfilled potential the defense had.

 

Future Fears

 

Let's begin with the fact that the longtime bedrock of the Jayhawk offense is now gone. The Kansas offense had been re-designed to suit Jennings's style, and the senior's graduation means Kansas will go back to the drawing board. Compounding matters, his most likely replacement is redshirt freshman Christian Graham. Jennings had some experience in mop-up duty before taking the reins as a freshman; Graham won't have even that benefit. The defense also loses three of its most talented players: James Carson leaves a hole at linebacker, Chad Bullock leaves a fillable vacuum at the #2 corner spot, and Harold Lange leaves a gap at strong safety that'll also be filled by a redshirt freshman. The defense was already saint-like; how much more holey can it get? Two other things worth keeping an eye on: Kansas has turned in back-to-back mediocre recruiting classes, and a lot of its major contributors from the 11th-ranked 2015 class are heading out the door after 2020. The Jayhawks need to step up their game on the recruiting trail, or Kansas's winning ways will be in serious jeopardy long-term.

 

Reasons for Hope

 

There's a few big ifs that could turn Kansas's 2020 season into one last hurrah. If Christian Graham can seize the reins effectively, the offense can still be a force. They return 8 starters from the offense alone. That includes runningback Jalen Clayton, star wideout Malcolm Davis, and potential 2021 top pick Ben Goode at left tackle. Graham will have all the help he could want as a freshman. If Clayton can't handle the runningback duties, junior college transfer Rod Fulton is available as an option as well. And on defense, Kansas will see the Boys from Basehor on the field together for the first time. Noel Barfield (2018's #1 strong safety) will almost certainly start next year, and Jamari Callahan (2019's #2 defensive end) is pushing hard for playing time. JuCo transfer Caleb Whitmore will be a one-year upgrade at outside linebacker. Albert Duke will likely be the starter at defensive tackle, and he showed positive flashes in limited duty as a freshman. Richard Clemons will push Isaiah Heard for playing time at free safety, and Bradley Spurlock returns for his junior year after two seasons as a force at cornerback. If the outstanding veterans continue their outstanding performances, the sophomores make the leap, and the incoming freshman make the impact they're expected to, Kansas can contend for the Big XII in 2020. But those are all some big ifs.

 

Presented by the Big XII Network

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