Heading into the 2011 college football season, Kansas fans are desperate to see their Jayhawks improve. KU is coming off a 3-9 season in which everything that could go wrong did, and a lot of hype was made of the Jayhawks' latest recruiting class and off-season improvement. Kansas could very well be one of the most improved teams in college football next season, despite having a record that is not any different (and potentially worse) that last year's 3-9 showing.
If a bad football team gets better, surely it will win more games right? Not necessarily so in the Big 12. As Kansas fans well know, the schedule means everything in this league, and Kansas' is about to get a whole lot tougher. During Mark Mangino's tenure, Kansas would prey on the weaker teams of the Big 12 while failing to knock off the perennial powers. The Jayhawks run to the Orange Bowl was a prime example of this; Kansas cruised through a relatively easy Big 12 schedule before dropping its only league game against a worthy opponent in the Border Showdown against Missouri. Under Mangino, KU had no problem beating weak Iowa State, Kansas State and Colorado teams, while it usually got blown off the field by Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech.
With the Big 12's move to ten teams, Kansas will be forced to play the league's best teams every season. The Jayhawks will also be replacing a non-conference game with a league contest, which means fewer opportunities to schedule the "cupcakes" Mangino was often criticized for playing. Let's not overlook the importance of losing Colorado either - Kansas won four of its last five meetings with the Buffaloes, and Colorado had been one of the weakest teams in the Big 12 over the past several seasons.
What does all this mean for the Jayhawks? For starters, they will be an underdog every Saturday. After its opener, Kansas will not be favored in one game the rest of the year barring a ridiculous collapse from another Big 12 team. A tougher schedule means fewer opportunities for wins, and Kansas will no longer face Colorado - the victim of the Jayhawks' lone conference win last year.
Let's also not forget how far this team has to go. KU could have a 30 point improvement against Kansas State and Baylor next season and still lose. The Jayhawks weren't dropping close games last year, they were getting blown out by almost everyone in the league. While a 14 point loss to Baylor would be considered a failure for most schools, it would represent a colossal improvement for KU.
It seems almost impossible that Kansas could play worse football than it did last season. The Jayhawks were historically bad on offense and defense, and Turner Gill and his staff should have a better grasp on things in year two. Kansas is still fairly young, but a lot of young players got valuable experience last season. The Jayhawks also showed a few signs of life towards the end of the 2010 season, and the win over Colorado, as crazy as it was, had to have meant something. If Kansas can avoid the injury bug and its young players continue to improve, there is no reason that the product on the field should be better in 2011.
If (or more likely when) Kansas stumbles to another poor record, many fans will point out that the team failed to get better in year two. Jayhawk fans must keep in mind how far their team has to go, and that the new league schedule only makes things harder. Player development, margin of defeat and even basic execution will show if the Jayhawks are improving - not the team's record.