Hang around the Anderson Football Complex, and it won’t be long before you see the T-shirts.
Each of Kansas’ football players has one. And the three-word slogan on the back summarizes the main belief of the 2016 season: “We will win.”
Following an 0-12 campaign, this has been KU football’s battle cry. Kansas coach David Beaty has preached to his players to go 1-0 each day in the work they do, with the hope that the small victories will eventually result in wins on Saturdays.
The first chance to test his theory comes this weekend. Kansas opens with Rhode Island, an FCS school that went 1-10 last season and is 5-41 in its last four years.
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And the significance of a potential win isn’t lost on those in the Jayhawks’ program.
“This is the most important game of our season. We’ve been talking about that since last year,” Kansas quarterback Montell Cozart said. “This game is going to determine everything for us.”
The benefits of a victory could be far-reaching.
For one, it could help erase some negative history. The Jayhawks’ current 15-game losing streak is longest among FBS schools. Central Florida is second at 13 games.
“We need to get off to a good start this year, and that’s obviously been a goal of ours,” Beaty said. “To be able to get a win in this first game would be something that would I think help us in a lot of ways moving forward.”
Beaty has vowed to keep his team’s game plan simple, hoping his guys will play fast while not overthinking. The coach says the three main keys for his team will be playing smart, winning the turnover battle and performing well on special teams.
“If we do that,” Beaty said, “I think everything else will fall into place and take care of itself.”
Kansas defensive coordinator Clint Bowen also will be watching to see if his guys stayed assignment-sound. The tendency in season-openers is often to try to make every play, which can lead to blown assignments.
“I want to make sure our kids focus on that if you’re a B-gap defender, then you’re the king of the world if they don’t run the ball in the B gap,” Bowen said. “And have that mentality and not worry about going and making a play somewhere else.”
Even one victory could help jumpstart the program’s rebuild. Teams are most judged by wins and losses, and cornerbacks coach Kenny Perry says recruiting becomes even more difficult when opposing coaches can steer kids away by bringing up an 0-12 record.
“It’s part of it,” Perry said. “Kids, they want to go somewhere where they can win.”
For now, the coaching staff plays to its strengths, talking to prospects about the gratification that can come from being part of a program’s rise. Perry still admits a few victories potentially “changes everything” when it comes to recruiting against other schools.
Winning also could bring relief for fans who have had little to cheer for since Mark Mangino’s departure in 2009. Kansas has gone 12-60 in the last six seasons with three combined Big 12 victories and an 0-31 record in road games.
“I think the fan base is a little broken right now,” Kansas quarterback Ryan Willis said.
The start of the healing process could come Saturday. Kansas is a 29 1/2-point favorite in one sportsbook, meaning a 22-month winless streak has a chance to be broken.
“Just for your own kids’ psyche, your fans’ psyche, we’ve got to get some momentum going,” Perry said. “It’d be huge.”
Jesse Newell: @jessenewell
Three things about Rhode Island
1. The Rams had two players named to the preseason all-conference team: kick returner Harold Cooper and linebacker Adam Parker. It was the first time the Rams had a pair of players on the list since 2011.
2. Rhode Island is rebuilding itself, as 28 of its 84 players were not on the roster last season. The Rams’ latest recruiting class was ranked No. 1 in the Colonial Athletic Association by 247sports.
3. The Rams scored more than 21 points just once in 2015 while averaging 13.2 points per game.
KU offensive line vs. Rhode Island defense: Though the Jayhawks’ O-line is one of the team’s biggest concerns heading into the season, it still should be good enough to overpower the Rams. KU shouldn’t have to rely on its passing attack to win this game … but if it does, things could get interesting, especially with Beaty not throwing his full confidence behind a quarterback before the opener.
Jesse Newell’s pick: KU 41-14
Those football fans who have stuck with the Jayhawks should be rewarded by seeing the team’s first victory in 22 calendar months. Expect a big game from receiver LaQuvionte Gonzalez, whose speed should give him an additional edge over a lower-level opponent.