KU Jayhawks game-by-game picks and bold predictions for 2021 college football season

New coach Lance Leipold’s first season at Kansas basically boils down to one question: How quickly can he catch up?

Leipold, by all accounts, is well-respected as a program-builder following successful turnarounds at both Wisconsin-Whitewater and Buffalo.

This season, though, he’ll be operating with one figurative arm tied behind his back.

Following Les Miles’ departure, Leipold was introduced as KU’s football coach in early May, a date that’s nearly unprecedented when it comes to coaches from the outside taking over Power Five vacancies. That meant Leipold wasn’t around for KU’s spring practices, forcing him to evaluate players in August drills while also having coaches install new offensive and defensive schemes.

In essence, Leipold is trying to accomplish double the work in half the time.

Because of KU’s roster composition, Year 2 could be a big step up. Year 3 could even have aspirations of bowl eligibility given the roster should be filled with experienced players.

This season, though, the win-loss record should be viewed in context.

Even if Leipold’s not going to make excuses, fans should be well aware of the challenges he faces in 2021.

Here are five bold predictions for KU’s upcoming season and game-by-game picks.

1. Quarterback Jason Bean will start every game for KU

Why not start with something so bold it could be wrong a few days from now? Leipold has declined to give substantive updates on his quarterback position, and in early practices, it seemed like Miles Kendrick’s leadership and knowledge of the system put him well ahead of both Jason Bean and Jalon Daniels. That’s changed recently, though, as Bean — a North Texas transfer — has wowed with his athleticism and ability to make plays in scrimmages. Leipold has said he doesn’t like rotating QBs, mostly because he previously played the position and knows how that can mess with a signal-caller’s confidence. Predicting that Bean will play every game will require him to not only earn the starting nod but also remain healthy — definitely not a given. I’ll still say improvement with KU’s offensive line and a commitment to a slower pace and more running-back run plays keeps Bean both out there and upright.

2. KU will cut its sacks allowed per game total in half this season

The Jayhawks allowed 5.2 sacks per game last season — the most of any FBS school since at least 2009 — so there’s almost nowhere to go but up. Still … early reports are that offensive line coach Scott Fuchs is the best person the Jayhawks have had in that position in years, while KU has enough experienced bodies to feel decent about its depth even if injuries arise. Sure, the Jayhawks could be forced to pass late in most Big 12 games, and those desperate situations often lead to inflated sack-allowed numbers. I still think KU is in line for drastic improvement here, which should be evident on the field and also in this particular statistic.

3. The Jayhawks will have their best sack season in more than a decade

It’s hard to get sacks on losing football teams, right? That would seem to make logical sense, but going through the numbers … the Jayhawks’ best sack total of the last decade was during 2015’s 0-12 campaign when — led by future Dallas Cowboy Dorance Armstrong — the Jayhawks registered 26 sacks. I think KU can do better in 2021. The Jayhawks’ D-line appears to be the defense’s greatest strength, led by Kyron Johnson, who has been a standout in his new position at defensive end. Fellow D-end Malcolm Lee has reshaped his body and also could take a huge leap, while Steven Parker and Zion DeBose have the potential to emerge as playmakers as the season goes on.

4. KU’s defense (again) will allow more points than any team in the nation

Hey, I got at least one bold prediction right last year. This really isn’t a knock on defensive coordinator Brian Borland. It’s just … this is a tough situation to inherit, especially after most of KU’s top defenders a year ago — like cornerbacks Karon Prunty and Elijah Jones and defensive linemen Marcus Harris and DaJon Terry — elected to transfer in the offseason. Shifting to a 4-3 defensive scheme will require transition time, and the Jayhawks still appear to have major questions at both cornerback and linebacker. KU’s defense is likely to allow somewhere around 40-ish points per game — the schedule isn’t doing the team any favors either — and the reality is, that’s a total that should be in the running for worst national honors.

5. A true freshman will lead KU in interceptions

KU, if healthy, should have some depth at safety. Kenny Logan should be among the team’s best players, while Ricky Thomas was among the team’s leading tacklers a year ago. O.J. Burroughs still figures to carve his own impact as a true freshman, though, based on what he’s shown in early drills. In particular, Burroughs was a star in the Jayhawks’ open practice in mid-August, earning his reputation of “Ball Hawk” while picking off multiple passes and displaying both quickness and anticipation. Burroughs isn’t the tallest guy at 5-foot-10, but playmakers are playmakers, and they have a way of making their way onto the field. The prediction here is that Burroughs will lead KU in picks, even without full-time snaps.

2021 schedule and predictions

Sep. 3 vs. South Dakota (7 p.m. on ESPN+): I’ve gone back and forth on this pick. I think if KU was facing a top-25 FCS team, I’d lean the opponent’s way. The more I read about South Dakota, though, the more I see a program going through many of KU’s same growing pains with less talent and fewer scholarship players. This is still an awfully tough spot for Leipold to be in with only a few weeks to get both player evaluations and scheme installs in. I bet this one ends up close. Kansas 27, South Dakota 21.

Sept. 10 at Coastal Carolina (6:30 p.m. on ESPN2): Sure, Coastal Carolina was helped by some close-game luck in 2020, but at worst it’s a top-40 team that will be fired up here to host a Power Five foe for the first time in school history. Quarterback Grayson McCall had five combined touchdowns in the Chanticleers’ 38-23 win over KU in 2020, and setting an over/under for him getting five in this one might be about right as well. Coastal Carolina 45, Kansas 14.

Sept. 18 vs. Baylor (2:30 p.m on ESPN+): Here are the scores of KU’s last six losses against Baylor: 66-7, 49-7, 38-9, 26-7, 61-6, 47-14. That’s … ugly, and this one might not be much better. Baylor 42, Kansas 7.

Sept. 25 at Duke: The good news for KU? Duke is easily the second-worst opponent on the schedule and shouldn’t overwhelm the Jayhawks from a talent standpoint. The bad news? KU has just one Power Five road win in the last 12 seasons, and the last time the Jayhawks had a winnable game in Durham, North Carolina, they were complete no-shows during a 41-3 loss in 2014. The Blue Devils should prevail if they keep their turnovers in check. Duke 34, Kansas 24.

Oct. 2 at Iowa State: KU has some brutal Big 12 road games this year, and this one leads things off. On a positive note, an October game means KU shouldn’t have to worry about cleat failures in icy conditions as it did during a previous blowout in Ames. Iowa State 56, Kansas 7.

Oct. 16 vs. Texas Tech: With KU coming off a bye week — and the Jayhawks’ only close Big 12 game in 2020 coming against the Red Raiders — I’m sure this will be a trendy upset pick. I’m not going there, though; the Red Raiders should still be a couple years ahead when it comes to program development. Texas Tech 41, Kansas 20.

Oct. 23 vs. Oklahoma: Will KU’s captains shake hands before the coin toss with OU’s players? That might be the most dramatic part of this expected onslaught. Oklahoma 59, Kansas 7.

Oct. 30 at Oklahoma State: This doesn’t appear to be one of coach Mike Gundy’s best teams, but the Cowboys have won 11 straight against the Jayhawks and shouldn’t have any issues at home. Oklahoma State 49, Kansas 14.

Nov. 6 vs. K-State: This game at Booth Memorial Stadium is likely to be a doozy … in 2023 when Leipold has had a couple years to settle in and the Jayhawks have a senior-laden roster. As for now, a lopsided rivalry figures to remain that way for another year. K-State 38, Kansas 13.

Nov. 13 at Texas: KU was this close to upsetting Texas the last time these two teams played in Austin, but needless to say … the Longhorns are better now and the Jayhawks have gone backward since. KU is likely to be playing with some physicality by this point, though, so the KU gamblers might leave happy even if the Jayhawks don’t. Texas 41, Kansas 28.

Nov. 20 at TCU: It’s hard to get KU’s 43-0 loss at TCU in 2017 out of my mind. Some facts about that one: The Jayhawks had 21 yards on 49 plays, finished with negative-25 rushing yards and never advanced the ball past their own 43. One of Leipold’s season-long goals has to be getting KU’s level of play up enough to avoid embarrassments like that. TCU 49, Kansas 14.

Nov. 27 vs. West Virginia: KU’s men’s basketball team will have a day off in the ESPN Events Invitational in Orlando, which should allow the football team to have full fan attention for the season finale. A close score would be a nice building block for 2022. West Virginia 35, Kansas 28.

Final Record: 1-11 (0-9 Big 12).

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