The start of Big 12 play comes on Saturday for most teams in the conference, and that includes the two facing off in Waco, TX. Both Kansas and Baylor are thought to be teams at the bottom of the Big 12, so if the pundits are right, this could very well be the battle for second-to-last. That doesn’t sound like the makings of high quality entertainment, but there are some big story lines here.
Kansas and Baylor have both doubled their win total from a year ago this far into 2018, but the two are in slightly different situations. David Beaty, the Jayhawks’ head coach, was thought to have limited time left coaching this team after Kansas lost to an FCS team in Week 1. Kansas then went on to win two games against FBS opponents, blowing out Big 10 foe Rutgers 55-14 in the process.
Are Beaty’s fortunes starting to change? Baylor will be the next major step to finding out. The Bears came into 2018 hoping to rebound from a one win season to possibly compete for bowl eligibility. Going 4-0 to start the season was always going to be key to Baylor pulling that off, so that particular ambition looks like it might in danger: last week, Baylor was thoroughly beaten by a Duke team that was missing their starting quarterback.
A win for Kansas would mean that maybe things really are turning around in Lawrence, whereas a win for Baylor would assure fans that Matt Rhule’s process is worth their trust.
KANSAS (2-1, 0-0)
The Kansas Jayhawks are riding a two game win streak, something that hasn’t happened in seven years in Lawrence. They’ve achieved that feat despite losing to FCS Nicholls State in their opener.
The Jayhawks have rebounded due largely to their defense, which has produced 13 turnovers so far this season. In particular, that’s due to the play of their pass defense. Kansas, who is holding opponents to a 50.6 completion percentage, prefers to rush three and drop eight back into coverage.
If their front can get pressure on the quarterback, that’s when Kansas has the potential to take advantage of poor decisions by the quarterback.
On offense, Kansas is really defined by their ability to run the ball. They have two quality running backs in freshman Pooka Williams and junior Khalil Herbert. Williams is less experienced, but probably has the best vision of any back on the roster.
The starting quarterback for the Jayhawks is Peyton Bender, but so far this season Kansas has been utilizing somewhat of a two-quarterback system. Bender is more of a passer, whereas transfer Miles Kendrick is the more mobile option. Kansas will go to Kendrick to run more of a zone read offense.
One area the Jayhawks will definitely hope to improve this week is in their special teams. Last week, Kansas had two kicks blocked, and one of them was returned for a touchdown.
BAYLOR (2-1, 0-0)
Baylor comes into this game after being upset by the Duke Blue Devils 40-27 at home. That loss moved the Bears to 2-1, and made Baylor’s path to bowl eligibility a lot less clear.
You’d be hard pressed to find four sure wins for a team that went 1-11 a year ago, but Kansas was supposed to be one of those wins. Yet, through two games Baylor has not exactly exhibited the kind of dominance one would expect.
Particularly suspect has been the Bears run defense, which is giving up a 181 yards per game after having played three teams that will likely struggle to get wins this season. Against Duke, Baylor was repeatedly gashed by sophomore running back Deon Jackson and mobile quarterback Quentin Harris, who came off the bench to start for the Blue Devils.
Baylor’s front seven often have problems getting off blocks and getting in position to tackle the ball carrier. Those issues were exposed early against Duke, when the Bears allowed Jackson to stroll into the end zone for 31 yards untouched on a draw play.
The Baylor secondary has been less suspect, allowing opponents to complete 55.3 percent of their passes.
Offensively, there’s been plenty of instability for the Bears at the quarterback position. Sophomore Charlie Brewer was thought to be the unquestioned starter headed into 2018, but transfer quarterback Jalan McClendon has managed to make the battle for a starting spot a true competition. McClendon, who got the nod to start against Duke, is completing 65.7 percent of his passes.
Though the offensive line has had its struggles, Baylor is talented at wide receiver. Denzel Mims, Chris Platt, and Jalen Hurd can all be dangerous on the outside.
KEYS TO THE GAME FOR KANSAS
Be Patient With The Running Game – Kansas will have a legitimate shot in this game if they can get Pooka Williams and Khalil Herbert going on the ground. Baylor’s run defense has been suspect, so a healthy dose of Miles Kendrick and the zone read on early downs wouldn’t be a bad idea. The Bears may very well load the box, but don’t abandon the ground attack.
Make The Offense Drive The Ball – Baylor will more than likely be able to find some ways to pickup yardage against the Jayhawks, but it will be key for Kansas to try and get the Bears to third down. The more plays they can get the offense to have to make, the more likely it will be that Baylor will get a big turnover.
Shore Up Your Special Teams – In a game that very well could be close, it’s safe to say that the Jayhawks can’t afford any critical mistakes. They especially can’t afford to have any field goals or PATs blocked like they had this week. Kicker Gabriel Rui is probably one of the best in the Big 12, but the Jayhawks’ linemen need to give him room to get his kicks off.
KEYS TO THE GAME FOR BAYLOR
Let The Quarterback Take Off – This is not the game for either Brewer or McClendon to try and stand in the pocket for long periods of time. If the Bears are facing a situation where they have to pick up a big chunk of yardage, they can expect Kansas to drop eight guys into coverage. Both of Baylor’s quarterbacks have wheels, though, so the Bears should let them run.
Avoid Light Boxes – Baylor has been absolutely killed by big runs this season when they lined up with five men in the box. The Bears’ defense has had issues getting off blocks, so they will more than likely have to load up the box throughout this game. That will force Peyton Bender to have one of the best games passing that he’s had at Kansas, something that most defensive coordinators could live with if it actually happens.
Be Prepared For A Close Game – What will be really interesting to watch in this game is Baylor’s mentality going in. Matt Rhule is having to rebuild this team right now, and the Bears aren’t yet at the point to where they can overlook teams. If Baylor takes this game seriously, they have more than a good chance to come away with a victory. If not, Kansas could get their third win in a row.
Last season, the game between these two teams was close before Kansas began making mistakes that gave the Bears easy opportunities. If the Jayhawks can keep from committing turnovers, I like this to be a close game. Baylor has more talent on its roster overall than Kansas, but this is a very experienced Jayhawks club and not much separates these teams.
It would be very tempting to take Kansas to pull of the upset here simply because of the momentum that the Jayhawks have going for them coming in. If the Jayhawks jump out to a two score lead, that won’t be surprising to me.
I’ll take Baylor to eventually make enough plays to win this game, though. If the game was in Lawrence, it would be very tempting to take the Jayhawks as one score underdog with the more experienced team, but thus far under Rhule the Bears are much better at home. Baylor by eight points.