Pre-season pick by some to win the Big 12 North. A talented offense led by returning starters Todd Reesing, Kerry Meier, Dezmon Briscoe and Jake Sharp. A rebuilt defense anchored by probable All Big 12 performer Darrell Stuckey. A coach acknowledged as masterminding a program's turnaround. One of the better recruiting classes in recent years.
So, what has gone wrong with the football season at the University of Kansas?
It's convenient to blame Todd Reesing. The classic over-achiever, Reesing has now turned the ball over nine times in the last three games with, once again, a ball he put on the ground today turning into an opponent's key touchdown. (Over the past four games, Kansas has 12 turnovers!)
Some say Head Coach Mark Mangino lost this team in Boulder when he went ballistic after the Jayhawks' loss to a bad Colorado team, blaming players and coaches alike.
Another frequently cited reason is the fight which occurred between the Kansas football team and basketball squad--that this clash led to a fissure within the football team with various players taking sides.
All of these are likely contributors to the four straight losses, the current last place spot in the North and the first loss in four years to Kansas State. The issues, though, are actually ones which began surfacing last year and have been magnified over the past four weeks.
In 2007, Kansas' breakout year with a BCS win in the Orange Bowl, the special teams were exceptional. Kansas has two TD returns on kicks, an electric punt returner in Aquib Talib, and above average kick and punt coverage.
In 2008, special teams play was up-and-down with various player combinations used for kick and punt returns and coverage units.
In 2009, Kansas has not returned a kick or a punt for a touchdown. Kansas' starting field position is consistently at the 20 or worse due to deficiencies in both of these areas.
In KU's loss today to Kansas State, Jacob Branstetter missed two field goal attempts. His inconsistency has caused Mangino to go for it on fourth downs, when he should kick the FG, and to publicly suggest that Branstetter couldn't pooch or squib kick last week from the Texas Tech 40 after penalties on the Red Raiders.
Every week there are head-scratching decisions on offense. Today, KU took a knee when it had time for two plays to move within field goal range before halftime. Backup QB Kale Pick, a very able runner, was inserted into a two-back set and had no success in his two running attempts. (Against Oklahoma, Pick was put into a "wildcat" formation, with no success.)
Kansas has not had recent success at establishing the running game but seems to quickly move away from this facet of their offense. There has been no rhythm established, with Jake Sharp's return to the lineup, in how he and freshman Toben Opurum are used in the offense.
Almost as damaging as the frequency of turnovers of late is the penalties which have occurred on offense. In today's game, two penalties--a hold and a false start--stopped drives within KSU territory. This trend started against Colorado and has since happened against OU, Tech and now KSU.
There is no denying that #5 is having his worst season in a Kansas uniform. Today's first half performance epitomized the issue--Reesing tried to do too much even though he obviously is not 100% physically...and turned the ball over three times. In the second half, Reesing played more within himself and moved the team twice on long drives but KU netted only three points for the effort.
Mangino's teams have been known to be ready to play each and every week. His Kansas squads have been resilient, often coming back for a win a week after a tough loss. They also have been disciplined--few penalties, few turnovers and solid special teams play. Not so this year. Something is definitely wrong--the body language is off, there's little swagger, the QB and the coach have had a public tiff in the media over the past week...it's all been unlike any Mangino team we've seen at Mt. Oread.
Kansas has to win one more game to be bowl eligible and I expect that will happen next week in Lawrence against Nebraska. It'll be the last home game for Reesing, Meier, Stuckey and Sharp, and likely Briscoe. Before the season, this game loomed as the one which might decide the Big 12 North. Not so now...but KU will beat the Huskers, lose to Texas and then play MU in Arrowhead. That end-of-season clash will decide where Kansas ends up in the bowl lineup--beat MU and the Hawks will be 7-5; lose and, even though bowl eligible, KU could end up with no invitation.
It's too early to say that Mangino is on the coaching hot seat but this year's disappointment translates to 2010 being an incredibly important year for this football program, and the head coach.