July 22, 2008

Mangino, Kansas hope to sustain success

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Rivals.com Preseason Countdown: No. 11 Kansas

KANSAS CITY, Mo. Usually, the immediate response to a thrilling roller-coaster ride is "let's do it again."

Kansas' 2007 season undoubtedly was thrilling. The Jayhawks climbed to new heights, finished 12-1 and posted an Orange Bowl victory over ACC champion Virginia Tech. What a ride for a program that had not managed more than seven victories in a season in 11 years.

It was so much fun, the Jayhawks obviously want to do it again. In fact, they want to do even more because for all the excitement that came with last season, a conference championship didn't.

"Our goal at Kansas is to win a championship," KU coach Mark Mangino said Tuesday on the second day of Big 12 Media Days. "If you're not trying to win a championship, then why compete? That's how every coach in this league thinks.

"Are we a better program than six, seven, eight or 10 years ago? No question. But if you aim low, it's easy to make it. Why not aim high?"

The '08 season almost certainly will provide more obstacles than the Jayhawks faced last season. Although the depth chart is rife with returning starters, especially on defense, the holes look to be significant. The schedule, which was most advantageous in '07, should be more treacherous in '08. There no longer is a surprise element working in the Jayhawks' favor, either.

More than one promising program has crashed under the weight of increased expectations. But Mangino promises that the Jayhawks will welcome the greater expectations.

"We embrace those expectations because there was a time when I first arrived here that there were no expectations for Kansas' football program," Mangino said. "The fact now is that people are taking a look at our program and seeing that we're competitive and we're able to compete at a high level here in a great conference like the Big 12.

"We think we're going to have a pretty good football team. We are looking forward to the season with the same great expectations fans have."

The Jayhawks have reasons to be eager. Quarterback Todd Reesing, who passed for 3,486 yards and 33 touchdowns last season, heads a list of six returning starters from an offense that was second in the nation in scoring (42.8 ppg). Nine starters are back from a defense that ranked 12th nationally in total defense and allowed 16.4 points per game.

All that returning talent led to Kansas being picked second, behind Missouri, in the North Division in the annual Big 12 media preseason poll. That's two spots higher than Kansas ever has been picked. Yet the Jayhawks seem insulted.

"I like being the underdog," Reesing said. "It's more fun playing when people don't want you to succeed. That's normal ground for us."

Reesing may be the biggest key to the Jayhawks' success after the loss of five offensive starters, including both tackles. Mangino doesn't appear concerned.

"Last year, we had two returning tackles and no returning centers or guards that had played significantly," he said. "This year, it's just reversed. I'm not overly concerned about it. I think it's the approach we take with these players that's more important than their actual ability or experience.

"We're going to do things with our offense that gives those kids a chance to be successful, just like we did a year ago when we had all the young players inside. We're not in an unusual position. We were in this spot a year ago."

Perhaps, but the Jayhawks didn't face the caliber of competition they're likely to face this season. Last season, Kansas did not face an opponent from a "Big Six" conference in non-conference play. Nor did the Jayhawks play Oklahoma, Texas or Texas Tech, the top three in the Big 12 South.

This season, they travel to face Big East contender South Florida and take on the three South Division powers. And Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said the North would be tougher, too. "Every team in the North will be better than they were a year ago," Pinkel said. "I've never said that before."

Last year in the regular season, Kansas played just four teams that finished with winning records Missouri (12-2), Central Michigan (8-6), Texas A&M (7-6) and Oklahoma State (7-6). The Jayhawks' regular-season opponents were a combined 65-85.

"Let's back that up and think about that for a minute," Mangino said. "Kansas' football coach has been asked about his 2007 schedule not being tough in a year where they defeated Nebraska, Texas A&M, Colorado and Virginia Tech.

"All that tells me is that we're making progress."

No doubt about that. Still, this season's schedule features five teams that posted at least nine victories in '07. Overall, Kansas' opponents this season were a combined 83-68 last season.

"Well, we've always said that we want our program to be able to compete with the best teams in the league," Mangino said. "And the fact that we are picking up Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech is something that we look forward to. We want to be able to play against all the best teams in our league and be able to beat them.

"We will never truly get over the hump, in my eyes, until we're able to defeat those teams as well."

It won't be easy. Then again, going over the humps always is the best part of a thrilling roller-coaster ride anyway.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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