LAWRENCE — While his predecessor was able to take advantage of soft nonconference schedules to build early momentum for his program, Kansas coach Turner Gill will have no such luxury in place.
In fact, Gill inherited by far the toughest September slate KU has faced in the last decade — the product of former coach Mark Mangino's growing interest in playing BCS opponents in nonconference play and a scheduling coincidence that dropped the No. 16 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets into the Sept. 11 slot on this year's schedule. Six days later, the Jayhawks will play a night game in Hattiesburg, Miss., against traditional Conference USA power Southern Mississippi.
Kansas' upping of the ante couldn't have come at a less opportune time. The Jayhawks haven't won a game since Oct. 10 after losing their last seven in 2009. They've got a new coach, a new quarterback and a host of questions to answer — only minimal time to study up before being handed a test as tough as any Big 12 program other than Oklahoma (which plays Florida State, Air Force and Cincinnati).
Is Gill's program in better shape to start with than Mangino's was in 2002? Of course. Mangino's staff began to bring legitimate recruiting classes to Lawrence on the strength of the 2007 Orange Bowl season, and nearly all of those players have stuck around for the Gill era. But could Gill still have used a steady diet of cupcakes to assure bowl trips within his first few seasons as Mangino did? Absolutely.
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This is not to say that KU's quandary is anybody's fault. College football schedules are brokered years in advance, and there's no telling what the state of any program will be when the games are actually played.
According to Larry Keating, KU's senior associate athletic director in charge of scheduling, he and Mangino had discussions within the last few years about beginning to play BCS opponents in nonconference play. The Jayhawks dipped their feet in the water with a home-and-home arrangement with South Florida in 2006 and '08. In June 2009, Keating set up the 2010-11 home-and-home with Georgia Tech.
Keating said scheduling the Yellow Jackets was a coincidence. KU ran into a situation where it still needed an opponent for 2010, and there was a limited number of teams that had a free date on Sept. 11. Georgia Tech became one of those teams, and the schools swung a deal. Still, while playing the Yellow Jackets may have been a coincidence, taking on a BCS school was not.
"Mark and I had talked about it back three or four years ago," Keating said, "about gradually looking at some different level teams than what we were doing."
Much has changed in the last year. KU was disappointing and is now starting over with Gill, and Georgia Tech won the ACC and went to the Orange Bowl.
All of this led to a situation in which Gill had no choice but to drill his young team on the Yellow Jackets during fall camp. Football coaches don't like to look ahead, but with Georgia Tech's triple-option offensive attack looming in week two, Gill broke the code.
"During preseason, we did take some specific days out for Georgia Tech," Gill said. "I think everybody in the country does that to a certain extent with that kind of offense. So therefore you can have a preliminary look at the team. As far as this last week, we've been on North Dakota State. We did (Georgia Tech) early in the preseason."
The Jayhawks are in the unenviable position of having to play the unorthodox Yellow Jackets one week and then turn around and figure out the high-powered Southern Miss spread the next.
"We're getting ready to play the first four games of the season, and all of them have uniqueness in what they do," KU defensive coordinator Carl Torbush said. "Second week we play Georgia Tech, playing the modern-day wishbone, and you go to the third week, we're gonna be playing a spread offense with a team that can run it and throw it. But, it'll help us prepare for the Big 12 schedule."
With the Big 12 going to a nine-game conference schedule in either 2011 or 2012, the Jayhawks will get a chance to re-evaluate their nonconference scheduling. After KU plays at Georgia Tech next season, the Jayhawks' only scheduled game against a BCS school will be a return trip to Duke.
But during Gill's crucial first two seasons, there will be no easy entry into Big 12 play.