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Significance of KU's 2-0 start goes well beyond win-loss record

Jayhawks building confidence, remaining hungry during solid start to 2023 season

6 min read
Kansas running back Devin Neal stares straight forward after a big gain against the Illini in KU's Week 2 win on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023 at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. [Chance Parker photo]

You can’t get to 5-0 — as the Jayhawks did a season ago — without first going 2-0.

But the Kansas football team’s second win in as many games this season sure felt bigger than a ho-hum, run-of-the-mill non-conference victory last Friday night.

This was a Big Ten team that came to town. One coached by a big name who’s had plenty of success at some big stops. And the Jayhawks put it on them on national television.

“Honestly, it means a lot for us,” quarterback Jalon Daniels said of the strong showing in front of a national audience. “If you would’ve looked back at us a few years ago, we wanted that type of attention and notoriety. And the fact that we got that and went out and got the win, it means a lot for our program.”

KU coach Lance Leipold said after the win that the Jayhawks discussed what was at stake in Week 2 and what a win would mean.

“We talked about the opportunity to play a Big Ten team at home on a night where there was only one other game going on,” Leipold said. “… The last time we played a Friday night game on ESPN it was against Coastal Carolina and we got blown out. For us to have that is exciting and I think more of these games are coming.”

There was an element of Kansas benefiting from bully ball that surfaced on Friday night. Even when the Jayhawks slipped up and momentarily gave the Illini hope, the home team quickly recovered and ended all thoughts the visitors had about a comeback.

“You can’t drink the Kool-Aid. We’re 2-0, but at the end of the day our mind is 0-0. We’re going into Nevada week with a chip on our shoulder and we know that we have to go out there and execute our game plan in order to win.” — Kansas QB Jalon Daniels

And this happened on both sides of the ball. That’s the sign of a good team. And these Jayhawks are exactly that.

Illinois scored late in the first half and KU answered with a touchdown of its own 36 seconds later. A KU fumble put an end to one promising drive, but the Kansas defense erased the mistake with an interception by Mello Dotson on the next.

On and on it went, with the Illini powerless to stop it.

Take a breath. Pause real quick and read that sentence again. Heck, you might even want to read it out loud.

On and on it went, with the Illini powerless to stop it.


The Kansas Jayhawks wait to take the field against Illinois before their Week 2 win on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023 at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. [Chance Parker photo]

All offseason, it was easy to point to KU’s Week 2 clash with Illinois as a strong indicator of the true value of both teams — climbing Kansas out of the surging Big 12 and solid-and-steady Illinois of the mighty Big Ten.

But only one of the teams on the field Friday night looked like it has anything to play for this season. Forget the second half, which was little more than a formality after KU roared to leads of 28-7 at halftime and 34-7 midway through the third quarter.

Everything you needed to see came in the first two and a half quarters. And those quarters showed us plenty about this Kansas football team. The Jayhawks have believed all along that they’re for real and should be viewed as a true contender.

It suddenly feels safe for everyone else to believe that, as well. Both KU’s two-week showing and the results throughout the rest of the Big 12 during the season’s first two weeks have painted a clear picture that Kansas should be able to — and very likely may — compete with every team on its schedule the rest of the way.

“Last year, they said that we played nobody in those first games that we did win,” Daniels said after Friday’s win. “Illinois is a great opponent; they’re a Big Ten team and last year they were top-10 as a scoring defense. As long as we go out there and play our game, I feel like we can compete with anybody.”

He’s not wrong.

There’s a real path to 4-0 for the second year in a row. And if they get there, you’ll be talking about ranked KU heading to Austin, Texas to take on a top-5-ranked Longhorns team.

Before we get there, though, let’s get back to the significance of this 2-0 start. Sure, KU has now done it in back to back seasons. But, between 2010 and 2022, it happened just twice. And last year was one of those.

Try this one on for size, though: Kansas has started a season 4-0 just six times in the last 70 years and has not achieved that feat in back-to-back seasons since the 1914 and 1915 seasons under head coaches H.M Wheaton and Herman Olcott.

Heck, KU hasn’t started back-to-back seasons with 3-0 marks since 1991 and 1992 — MORE THAN 30 YEARS AGO! — and this team is in a position to make a serious run at both feats in the next couple of weeks.

If they tackle those tasks, the confidence will grow. And if this team’s confidence gets any higher, there’s no telling what’s possible from there. Especially when you consider the fact that, as long as Jalon Daniels stays healthy, KU will go into most if not every game the rest of the season with the better quarterback of the two teams playing.

That’s significant stuff and history has shown us that teams who have the better quarterback often have fared better at all levels of the game.

Things have gone even better for the teams and quarterbacks who have moved forward with the ability to keep their heads inside of their helmets.

You don’t need to see another snap or listen to another soundbite to know that this Kansas team will be one of those.

“You can’t drink the Kool-Aid,” Daniels said last Friday. “We’re 2-0, but at the end of the day our mind is 0-0. We’re going into Nevada week with a chip on our shoulder and we know that we have to go out there and execute our game plan in order to win.”

KU-Nevada (9:30 p.m. central in Reno, Nevada) will be on an offshoot of CBS Sports next Saturday night, so the whole world won’t be able to watch it. But we might not be saying that much longer.

KU-BYU has a good ring to it, especially if both teams are 3-0, with KU owning a win over a Big Ten program and the Cougars topping SEC program Arkansas this week.

Then it’s KU-Texas and we’ve already discussed what that could look like, followed by KU-UCF the following week.

That’s the potential for KU to have four high-profile, prime-slot, nationally televised games before September’s even over.

Getting to that point has been the goal all along — or at least one of them. But taking advantage of being in that position is a whole other animal and these Jayhawks — even more so than last year’s squad — appear comfortable in that role and ready to strike.

“This reason why this (was) a bigger game than maybe when it was scheduled is because of the work of those guys and what they’ve done,” Leipold said of the win over Illinois. “They’ve earned that opportunity and they haven’t had that chance (before). Hopefully we can continue to be somewhere that we have these types of opportunities, whatever time they want us to play.

“I think there was probably a lot of eyeballs on this football team tonight,” Leipold added. “And I’m proud of the way they played it. But I don’t want to make it about more than that. We’ve got a lot of football left to play yet and a long way to go.”

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