LAWRENCE — After everything that has happened, the six straight losses, the ongoing investigation into their coach, the Kansas Jayhawks contend that they still have plenty to play for today against border-rival Missouri.
In fact, KU senior defensive back Justin Thornton has it all figured out. Beat the Tigers, have Texas beat Nebraska in the Big 12 championship game and have Oklahoma State beat Oklahoma to take an at-large slot in the Fiesta Bowl. Then the Jayhawks would be assured of a third straight bowl appearance. Yes, even though things have not gone remotely according to plan, Thornton would still like to spend his holiday season in a place like Houston for the Texas Bowl or Shreveport, La., for the Independence Bowl.
But first, KU has to take care of MU.
"This is our Super Bowl right now," Thornton said. "It's for all the marbles. Everything is on the line for us."
Maybe if this game was against another team, it wouldn't seem so important. Last season, the Jayhawks witnessed the redemptive powers of a win over Missouri. Entering the game, they were struggling with a 6-5 record and were a decided underdog against the Tigers. But KU won 40-37 in incredible fashion and went on to win the Insight Bowl against Minnesota. All of a sudden, the season was considered a success.
"That's one thing," Thornton said. "This game holds a little more power than any other game on our schedule. Even though we're 5-6 right now, if we beat Missouri and go 6-6, everybody is disappointed with the season we had, but at least we beat Missouri. If we get a bowl game and win our bowl game, we're 7-6 and, as bad as things are, it doesn't look too bad."
Thornton and KU's other seniors have been trying to explain that fact to the team's younger players.
"Some of the guys are losing hope," Thornton said, "and we're trying to encourage them because if we win this game, we're in a position."
After KU's win at UTEP earlier this year, Thornton said the Jayhawks would be disappointed with a return trip to El Paso, Texas, for the Sun Bowl. Now, that would sound heavenly. It's a testament to the competitive nature of college athletes that the KU seniors want to go through 15 bowl practices.
"I'm definitely not ready to be done yet," KU wide receiver Kerry Meier said. "What we're anxious to do is play our best ballgame of the year. I think if we do that we'll find ourselves in postseason play."
The Jayhawks will undoubtedly enter the postseason with the continued distraction of whether or not KU coach Mark Mangino will be fired for his treatment of players. Thing is, living with distractions at this point has become the norm.
" (The Mangino investigation) is the only thing that anybody wants to talk about," Thornton said. "My friends back home, my family back home, it's like, 'What's going on with your coach?' It's frustrating. I knew as soon as that first question came so fast it was just gonna be hell for the next couple weeks."
The last thing Mangino would have wanted was to serve as a distraction to his players coming down the stretch. He said he was "sorrowed" by the fact that his drama overshadowed the return of Todd Reesing to his hometown of Austin last weekend.
But Mangino does not see a distracted team entering the Border War.
"We're talking about a program that (had) never gone to bowl games in back-to-back years (until last year)," Mangino said. "We're now talking about the possibility of going three consecutive years. That's important to the kids. They have a chance to leave a legacy here. And they want to do that, especially the senior group."