Two years ago, Kansas made an unlikely bid for the national title. The pieces could be in place for something similar in 2009.
The 25th-ranked Jayhawks and star quarterback Todd Reesing begin the new campaign Saturday night when they try to extend their non-conference home winning streak to 18 games as they face Northern Colorado.
Kansas went 8-5 last season and 4-4 in Big 12 play, winning a bowl game for the second straight year with a 42-21 victory over Minnesota in the Insight Bowl.
It came on the heels of a surprising 2007 season in which the Jayhawks started 11-0 before a 36-28 loss to then-No. 3 Missouri in the regular-season finale. Kansas beat Virginia Tech 24-21 in the Orange Bowl to cap its 12-win season.
“From the days I got back here in 2005, the buzz around the community and the people, there was not much excitement,” receiver Kerry Meier said. “But the Orange Bowl adds a little bit more, after last year with the Insight Bowl adds a little more. And here we are in 2009, it’s the talk of the town.”
With 15 returning starters and the Big 12 North appearing to be weak this year, Kansas could surprise again.
“I think this is a group that has some leadership, some strong leadership and I like the way they are approaching the game, how they are learning and approaching things at meetings, learning out on the field, paying attention at all the walk-throughs,” coach Mark Mangino said.
Reesing is back after setting Kansas records with 619 completions, 7,578 yards passing and 68 touchdowns. The diminutive signal-caller could become the first Jayhawk to draw a Heisman Trophy vote since David Jaynes in 1973.
The Jayhawks went 1-4 against ranked opponents a year ago, giving Reesing plenty of motivation for his senior season. Kansas is 5-12 against ranked teams under Mangino.
“I think the biggest thing for us is the fact that people still doubt us,” Reesing said. “We have to continually prove ourselves in the conference and on the national scene.
“Until we continue to beat good teams, and go to bowl games and win bowl games then people will continually consider us a fluke or this or that. So we want to prove people wrong and everyone on this team has a chip on their shoulder and that is why they are willing to work.”
Leading rusher Jake Sharp returns after he gained 888 yards and scored 12 touchdowns in 2009. Rell Lewis and Toben Opurum provide depth at tailback.
Reesing’s favorite target - wide receiver Dezmon Briscoe - enters with four straight 100-yard efforts, including a spectacular Insight Bowl performance in which he had 14 catches for 201 yards and three touchdowns. Briscoe had 1,407 yards and 15 scores in 2008 while Meier - the backup quarterback the last two years - added 1,045 yards receiving and eight TDs.
Briscoe is back after he was suspended for the spring game due to academics. He is hoping that training camp helped him shake off the rust.
“The stupid stuff that I did, it’s just something that is out of my character,” Briscoe said. “Like I said before it’s a learning experience. I feel like coach letting me back on the team means that he trusts me to not do that stuff again.”
Kansas has won five straight season openers by an average of 27.0 points and should be in for an easy game against Northern Colorado.
The Bears went 1-10 last season, including a 1-7 mark to tie for last place in the Big Sky. They return 13 starters on offense and defense, including senior quarterback Bryan Waggener, who is 454 yards shy of 3,000 for his career.
Northern Colorado coach Scott Downing is in his fourth season, trying to improve upon his 3-31 record. Downing has familiarity with Kansas from his days as Nebraska’s assistant head coach from 2003-05.