Throughout the preseason, there has been one constant in the words coming out of the mouths of Kansas coach Turner Gill, his assistant coaches and returning players: the praise of KU's true freshmen.
In six seasons covering college football programs, I have never heard a bunch of 18-year-olds who have never played a down at this level receive so much hype. It can be taken two ways.
Hopefully for KU fans, the reason that those inside the program are so willing to build up expectations of a talented freshman class is that the group is actually talented. But there's also a chance that, coming off a disastrous 3-9 season in 2010, Gill and company are so disenchanted with the upperclassmen that there's a hint of desperation in hoping the new guys are better.
As with most things, it's probably somewhere in the middle. Either way, whether the incoming class of 2011 is great or not, this football season will be more about whether the Jayhawks with playing experience have drastically improved from last season.
If they haven't, KU is in for another depressing autumn. The schedule is tougher than ever, and marginal improvement from players like quarterback Jordan Webb is not going to be enough to raise the Jayhawks' win total by more than a win. This season, 4-8 is the ceiling for a sub-par KU squad.
But let's just say that there has been drastic improvement, that fans won't be able to recognize the Jayhawks when they take the field against McNeese State. Let's say the reports of a faster and more explosive team are true. Let's say Toben Opurum is a playmaker at defensive end, and converted receivers Bradley McDougald and Keeston Terry form one of the better safety tandems in the Big 12, and freshman running backs Brandon Bourbon, Darrian Miller and Anthony Pierson live up to their billing as four-star recruits.
Then, KU actually does have a chance to go bowling in Gill's second season. There are winnable games for a competitive lower-half Big 12 team: McNeese State, Northern Illinois, at Georgia Tech, Texas Tech, Kansas State, at Iowa State, Baylor.
The Jayhawks will have a small margin for error and must get off to a fast start. And, hey, it's not even September yet. There is reason for hope with Kansas football in 2011.