LAWRENCE — The Kansas Jayhawks made one thing pretty darned clear this week about Saturday's opponent, the 3-3, Sam-Bradfordless Oklahoma Sooners: It doesn't matter how many wheels are left on the Sooner Schooner when it pulls into Lawrence.
From redshirt freshman Lubbock Smith: "It's Oklahoma."
From senior captain Jake Sharp: "It's Oklahoma."
From a guy who is just learning what it means to be a Kansas football player and a guy who understands the reality better than anyone, the implication is the same: Kansas is not Oklahoma, despite the better record and the higher ranking, and the Jayhawks will not be mentioned in the same breath as the Big 12's elite teams until they match wills for 60 minutes and emerge victorious against one of them. It's the same progression that Texas Tech and Oklahoma State have had to make in the Big 12 South.
While Kansas State has been able to overcome the talent gap and pull two upsets over Texas in recent years, the Jayhawks still do not have a win over the Sooners or Longhorns in the Mark Mangino era.
"It's a really big opportunity to come away with a victory and show that we do belong up there with some of the top teams in the nation," KU sophomore Daymond Patterson said. "Even after a loss like we had last weekend, we can come back and erase a lot of those thoughts of 'OK, KU might not be as good as we think they are' if we can get a win this week."
Certainly, the Jayhawks' 34-30 loss to Colorado last weekend raised more questions about the legitimacy of KU's rise, which began in 2007 when it rode the softer Big 12 South schedule rotation to a 12-1 season and an Orange Bowl victory.
Last season, the Jayhawks put up a respectable showing at OU, losing 45-31, but followed that up by losing to Texas Tech and Texas in Lawrence by a combined score of 98-28. With KU traveling to Lubbock and Austin later this year, Saturday's nationally-televised showdown with OU in Lawrence will be the Jayhawks' best chance to gain back any respect they may have lost during the last season-and-a-half.
"A lot of people doubt us going into this game," Patterson said.
Still, this is the time for KU. The Jayhawks won't get another shot in the regular season against the South powers until 2012, and by that time, quarterback Todd Reesing will be long gone. The future of Kansas football after Reesing looks bright, but there are no guarantees in college football.
"Anytime you can get a win over a school like OU," Reesing said, "it's going to mean a little more for the program and for the fans and for everybody else because they have had so much history in their program and they are so good year in and year out. Winning against a team like that, it's got all the normal things you love about (winning), and it's got a little bit more, too."
The normal things Reesing referred to are the necessities of winning Big 12 games, particularly those played at Memorial Stadium. The Jayhawks need those, too, to be sure. If they lose to the Sooners, it will appear nearly impossible for them to win their first outright Big 12 North title with road games still remaining at Kansas State, Texas Tech and Texas. Even KU's remaining home games _ Nebraska and Missouri at Arrowhead Stadium _ should be highly-contested affairs.
Looking at the schedule at the beginning of the season, the Jayhawks needed to be at least 2-1 in their first three league games, and that remains the case. It just so happens that now one of those wins has to come against the Sooners.
Well, luckily for KU, OU is literally limping into Lawrence a year after winning its third straight Big 12 title and playing in the BCS championship game. Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford reinjured his right shoulder in OU's 16-13 loss to Texas last week, and the Sooners lost All-America tight end Jermaine Gresham before the season even started.
The Jayhawks' defense, undergoing what is becoming an annual midseason transformation, gets a break in having to face redshirt freshman quarterback Landry Jones. Although, KU won't be fooled by that.
"We still gotta worry about the pass," Patterson said. "Jones isn't just a square coming in to replace Bradford."
Mangino said: "Obviously, I understand that when you lose a guy of the caliber of Sam Bradford, there is going to be a drop-down to some degree. But it is not a horrific drop; they are not falling off a cliff after Sam Bradford."
OU coach Bob Stoops has built a program that can sustain itself after a drop like it has faced this season. The Jayhawks, still trying to climb their way up, need this one.
"I think we've done a lot of great things already," Sharp said. "But it's something that we'll feel unsatisfied (about) if we drop the ball."