LAWRENCE, Kan. — There was a point shortly after Kansas had beaten Houston last season, giving the Jayhawks as many wins through three games as they had in any season in more than a decade, when coach Lance Leipold knew that things were going to be different.
There was pride in the program. The Jayhawks were no longer college football's laughingstock.
“Our kids were really proud of wearing a Kansas football shirt around campus and I don't know if they could do that,” Leipold recalled. “That helps your approach each day — self-confidence, and confidence in what you're doing as a program. That's huge.”
They Jayhawks proceeded to win twice more, climbing into the AP Top 25 for the first time since their last winning season in 2008, before an injury to quarterback Jalon Daniels halted their momentum. They lost six late games, but a win over Oklahoma State qualified them for a bowl game, where they lost an entertaining shootout with Arkansas.
Their 6-7 overall record represented perhaps the biggest improvement of any program in the country last season, and such a gargantuan step toward respectability that the previous five head and interim coaches were unable to do it.
The challenge now is to go from respectability to contending in the Big 12.
“Our program is starting to play at a level that it should be at,” said Leipold, the longtime Division III championship-winning coach who is entering his third season at Kansas. “We've made some progress.”
There are plenty of reasons to believe there will be more this season.
Daniels is back and healthy, and his immense value to the program was evident when he was voted the conference's preseason offensive player of the year. Devin Neal and Daniel Hishaw return behind him, forming a potent one-two punch at running back, and Wisconsin transfer Logan Brown and California transfer Spencer Lovell should solidify the offensive line.
On defense, safety Kenny Logan anchors a talented secondary, while a slew of veterans and transfers at the first two levels should help the Jayhawks improve on their standing as one of the worst in the Big 12 last season.
“I think we have high expectations of ourselves,” defensive coordinator Brian Borland said. "We are not necessarily satisfied with the results week in and week out over the last couple of years. I think guys are hungry to prove to themselves and hopefully the world that it’s a different year and a different unit. We’ll be able to play up to the level that we need to.”
MORE ABOUT DANIELS
Once buried on the depth chart, Daniels emerged as a star last season, throwing for more than 2,000 yards with 18 touchdowns and four interceptions while running for 419 yards and seven more scores — all despite missing four games to injury.
Daniels also has his top six receivers back from last season, led by potential NFL draft pick Mason Fairchild at tight end.
The Jayhawks were respectable against the pass last season but last in the Big 12 against the run, and that led to them being last in points allowed. Devin Phillips has arrived from Colorado State and Gage Keys from Minnesota to shore up defensive tackle, and Utah State transfer Patrick Joyner Jr. and Auburn arrival Dylan Brooks should help on the edge.
There's a reason that Cobee Bryant was added to the early watch list for the Jim Thorpe Award, which is given to the nation's best defensive back. He was second-team All-Big 12 last season after making 38 tackles, three interceptions, nine pass breakups and a defensive touchdown, all while forcing a fumble and recovering one.
The Jayhawks recently revealed new locker rooms and weight rooms as part of a massive investment in the football program. But the biggest change could be a few years down the road. Kansas is working on a project that will completely transform Memorial Stadium, one of the oldest — and most outdated — facilities in major college football.
The game against Illinois on Sept. 8 should provide an early measuring stick for the Jayhawks and the conference slate in the new-look Big 12 is a bear. Kansas misses natioinal runner-up TCU, but it has games against No. 11 Texas and No. 20 Oklahoma along with the Sunflower Showdown against No. 16 Kansas State, the defending conference champion. The Jayhawks also face tough newcomers BYU, UCF and Cincinnati this season.