Last weekend year two of the Turner Gill era kicked off with a nice victory for the Kansas Jayhawks over McNeese State. Kansas ran the ball effectively, quarterback Jordan Webb proved efficient in the passing game and at the end of the day the Jayhawks were able to put together a solid win and avoid a replay of last seasons FCS meltdown.
All that would make one think that Kansas might have the edge heading into the second non conference game of the season against a non-AQ MAC program. But then again Northern Illinois and the MAC are far from a pushover. Northern Illinois is fresh off a season where they won their division in the MAC, spent time ranked in the top 25 and polished of Fresno State in the Humanitarian Bowl by a final score of 40-17. They return starting quarterback Chandler Harnish and despite losing leading rusher Chad Spann the Huskies do return a stable in the backfield that provides some solid talent and depth.
Overall the biggest loss might have been head coach Jerry Kill who departed for Minnesota, the Big 10 and dreams of BCS grandeur. That said, Northern Illinois hired another solid coach in former Kansas assistant Dan Doeren. Doeren was responsible for recruiting some of the great overachievers at Kansas during the Mangino era and he's known as someone who is a strong evaluator of talent and he certainly didn't disappoint in his opening week game with a convincing victory over Army.
All this leads us back to Kansas. The Jayhawks started as a seven point underdog in this one and while the line has moved to between four and five points, Kansas is still the underdog and Turner Gill will have to have his team ready to play if Kansas wants to start the day 2-0.
From an offensive perspective Kansas had it's way in the running game against McNeese compiling over 300 yards on the ground. While NIU gave up over 300 to Army, Kansas probably needs to be prepared to use the pass on a slightly more consistent basis as the level of competition increases. It's pretty clear that Kansas will be a run focused team but last weeks 85% run 15% pass play calling style will gradually shift. What Jordan Webb does with those increase opportunities will be just as important as continued success on the ground from Kansas.
On the defensive side of the ball Northern Illinois will definitely present a great test for Kansas. The Jayhawks allowed McNeese State to put up some big offensive numbers and the Huskies have a better more balanced offensive attack. The Jayhawks will need to continue to play stout against the run, but they'll need to button things up against the pass while also finding a way to contain Harnish who can beat you with his feet just as easily as his arm.
This season's non-conference slate is a far cry from two or three years ago when Kansas would line up three gimme contests. This weekend kicks off the next step in showing improvement and it comes with a tough test against NIU and an opportunity for Kansas to grab an "upset" victory early in the season. At the end of the day a win would be big for Gill and the confidence at Kansas.