As we move into another week of KU football coverage here at R1S1 Wave the Wheat, it’s time to take a look ahead at what’s coming up.
We’ll call this new weekly feature, “From the Top of the Hill,” and, in it, we’ll take a look at what trends and angles we’ll be pursuing on the football beat along with whatever other stories we’re working on involving KU athletes in all sports.
As the calendar closes in on flipping to October, basketball is warming up its vocal chords for a full performance in the not-too-distant future.
The KU men will travel to Illinois later this week to take on the Illini in an exhibition game on Friday in Champaign that will benefit the relief efforts from the Maui fire.
The KU women also will be participating in a couple of preseason scrimmages next month and we’ll get to those when they roll around. Until then, we’re also planning to check in on an NCAA.com social media takeover tour with the KU women’s hoops program on Tuesday, so keep an eye out for some fun stuff from that.
Oh, and in case you didn't catch it this morning, be sure to get your Monday morning Wheaties here.
We also have some volleyball and soccer plans for this week, with both programs home for a pair of matches — KU volleyball hosts Houston for two on Friday and Saturday and KU soccer will play Baylor on Thursday and Texas on Sunday.
Speaking of Texas, Lance Leipold’s 24th-ranked Jayhawks are facing one heck of a challenge and opportunity this week, when they travel to Austin to take on the 3rd-ranked Longhorns at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Darrell K. Royal Texas Memorial Stadium.
The game will be televised on ABC, and we’ll have coverage throughout the rest of the week, starting with this quick glimpse and where the Jayhawks sit in a few key areas as they prepare for a monster test against Texas.
Regardless of whether you’re surprised about the Kansas football team’s 4-0 start or you expected it, you have to admit that the Jayhawks already have picked up two pretty good wins.
Topping Illinois at home in Week 2 was significant. And the Jayhawks did it convincingly. And taking down unbeaten BYU last weekend was equally as impressive in that the Cougars are now a Big 12 foe and were coming off of a win at Arkansas of the SEC.
But don’t dismiss the Jayhawks’ other two wins as gimmes.
Any time you go on the road and win, as the Jayhawks did in Week 3 at Nevada, you’ve done something meaningful. And Missouri State, which KU clobbered in the home opener, scored 90 points combined in its next two games, after being held to just 17 in a 48-17 loss at KU to open the season.
It’s clear that KU’s wins have garnered them some national attention. But it’s even more clear that if Leipold’s team wants to put itself fully in the spotlight, a win at Texas this weekend would do just that.
Heck, it might move KU into position as the Big 12 favorite through five weeks. I’ll give you a minute to grab your hat and catch your breath after reading that. Who would’ve ever thought just three years ago that we’d even be close to writing sentences like that this soon?
Having the opportunity is one thing, but taking advantage of it is another.
Leipold on Monday made it crystal clear that the Longhorns are an extremely good football team and that the Jayhawks are going to need their best week of preparation yet — maybe ever — to have a chance when they head to Austin this weekend.
But there’s reason beyond the 4-0 record for this KU team to have confidence and the belief that this is a game it can win.
Here’s a quick look at the three biggest factors in that line of thinking.
• KU ranks No. 1 in the nation in third-down conversion percentage. The Jayhawks are picking up a first-down on 60.5% of their third downs so far this season, putting them just ahead of No. 16 Washington State (4-0), which has been successful 59.6% of the time on its third-down tries.
While KU has only reached third down 43 times in four games — converting 31 of those into first downs — the significance of success in this area is not lost on anyone.
Third-down conversions keep drives alive and sustaining drives means putting up points. It also means keeping the other offense off the field and giving your defense a chance to rest. All of that combined has led to this as arguably the most key stat to date for this KU football team and is a big reason why Jalon Daniels and company currently rank 25th nationally in total offense and why KU’s defense, which has been the biggest breakthrough for the Jayhawks so far this season, ranks 21st in total defense.
• Speaking of defense, KU’s defensive line has been terrific in its first four games and a big part of the reason for that has been the number of different players who have factored in up front. Many of them are transfers, with newcomers Austin Booker, Gage Keys and Devin Phillips making a major impact already. But returners Hayden Hatcher, Jereme Robinson, DJ Withers and Tommy Dunn also have been rock solid up front.
This group will face by far its biggest test to date against a Texas team that ranks 67th in rushing offense at 155.8 yards rushing per game and features a big and physical front five along the offensive line. Look no further than the Longhorns’ win over Alabama for proof of what this team can do in the trenches. UT averaged 7.9 yards per play on first down against 'Bama.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, the Longhorns recorded five sacks and nine tackles for loss against the Crimson Tide. Numbers like that will put the onus on KU’s linemen to deliver in this one, and if the D-Line is able to continue its roll and the offensive line is able to get a push in the KU run game, as well, the Jayhawks’ chances at success will go up significantly.
UT’s defense ranks 12th nationally and is giving up just 12.5 points per game and 2.7 yards per carry. KU’s rushing offense is averaging 218 yards per game (12th nationally) on 5.5 yards per carry (18th nationally), so whichever side can win that battle may have a huge say in which team wins the game.
• Special teams success is significant. While the numbers in this area are harder to compare across college football, they’re very relevant for the Jayhawks. The reason? Because they’re mostly good.
After clearly ranking as one of the worst special teams units in the FBS last season, the Jayhawks have been solid through four games in three major special teams areas — punt, field goal and kick return. There are no numbers in any of those areas that will blow your mind or are really even worth highlighting.
But the fact that they represent improvement over last year is what has Leipold most excited because that’s the only measurement that truly matters. Are you getting better or not? KU very much is in this area, and it might not be much of a coincidence given the fact that Leipold brought in special teams guru Sean Snyder (and others) during the offseason to put a greater emphasis on shoring things up in the third phase of the game.
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