The final days of the regular season are upon us and all that stands between the Texas Longhorns and a trip to the Big 12 Championship game is the Big 12 bottom-feeders — the Kansas Jayhawks.
There’s good news and bad news to that end, however.
Unsurprisingly, the Longhorns are double-digit favorites and own a projected win probability of 87 percent, per S&P+. The odds and outcome expectations are fitting for a Kansas team that’s 0-3 against ranked foes this season with an average margin of defeat of 18.3 points, and just one win overall since Sept. 15 — a 27-26 victory over TCU. However, on Friday, the three-win Jayhawks will suit up for Senior Day with nothing to lose, as it will mark the end of Kansas’ season, and furthermore, the end of the David Beaty era.
Not to mention, the last time the Longhorns visited Lawrence, they left with arguably the worst loss in program history.
Much like Friday’s meeting, Texas was picked to win in 2016, though this time around, the Longhorns are a much-improved unit than they were to end the Charlie Strong era. If Texas plays as such on Friday morning, they’ll spend the evening following the Oklahoma-West Virginia game for another look at which Big 12 power they’ll meet in Arlington.
The key to keeping Kansas from running wild as it did against Oklahoma is containing the Jayhawks rushing attack, which begins with true freshman Pooka Williams Jr, as Burnt Orange Nation detailed earlier this week.
As a result of such a sensational showing [against Oklahoma], Williams eclipsed the 1,000-yard milestone with 1,022 yards, becoming just the 12th Jayhawks to do so, which is even more notable considering he didn’t see the field in the season-opener against Nicholls and has since shared the workload with Khalil Herbert (109 attempts).
Nevertheless, Williams has made the most of his 145 attempts, churning out a Big 12-best 7.0 yards per carry, which also ranks as the 10th-best effort in college football. Not to mention’s Williams’ tremendous productivity is coming behind an offensive line that isn’t exactly overwhelming opponents at the point of attack, as Kansas’ standard down line yards per carry is a mere 2.50, which ranks 74th nationally and essentially means Williams is making much more of his opportunities than the offensive line is generally paving the way for.
Simply put, Williams is an explosive option out of the backfield, as evident not only by his sheer stat line, but by his 14 runs of at least 20 yards this season. When Williams isn’t receiving carries, he’s often being utilized as a receiving option, as his 32 receptions is the second-best effort on the team, which has led to an additional 277 yards and one score.
Williams’ running mate in the backfield is junior Khalil Herbert, who’s been plenty serviceable as a secondary option, totaling 491 yards and five touchdowns on 109 attempts.
With Williams and Herbert guiding Kansas’ ground game, the Jayhawks rank 58th in rushing S&P+, which isn’t overwhelming on the surface, but it’s a considerable step up from Kansas’ passing attack — if one could call it that — which ranks 122nd in S&P+.
Entering the regular-season finale, quarterbacked by senior Peyton Bender, Kansas is yet to eclipse the 250-yard mark through the air — for comparison, Sam Ehlinger has done so six times this season, despite missing the Baylor game and the second half against Iowa State. This isn’t to say Kansas can’t make some plays in the passing game, with options including Steven Sims Jr., Jeremiah Booker, and Stephon Robinson, but those plays are fewer and far between, as evident with the Jayhawks rankings 120th in passing marginal explosiveness and 123rd in passing marginal efficiency.
With the Texas secondary finally enjoying as much health as it has in several weeks, the Longhorns should have little issue keeping Kansas’ passing game contained. If the defensive backs can win their one-on-one matchups, it would afford Todd Orlando more flexibility in attempting to slow the ground game, and thus, largely limit Kansas’ ability to generate much offensive success.
The Jayhawks defense isn’t much to write home about.
Four times this season Kansas has sacrificed at least 48 points, and the defense — or the lack thereof — is directly why Kansas pouring 40 points on Oklahoma last weekend still saw the team head home with a 15-point loss.
The stats speak to such substantial struggles, whether in be Kansas ranking 84th in rushing S&P+ or 114th in rushing marginal efficiency, or the secondary faring even worse, ranking 109th in passing S&P+ and 117th in passing marginal efficiency.
There is individual talent to be found; most notably linebacker Joe Dineen Jr., whose 128 tackles ranks fourth nationally and headlines the Big 12. Keith Loneker Jr. is another force at the second level, and the secondary has it’s share of talent between safeties Bryce Torneden (98 tackles) and Mike Lee (62 tackles), and cornerbacks Corione Harris (4 PD) and Hasan Defense (3 INT, 5 PD).
However, the sum hasn’t come close to equating some of its parts, and consequently, Kansas ranks 103rd in defensive S&P+, 92nd nationally in yards allowed per game (429.5), and 84th in scoring allowed (30.5).
Now set to face a Texas offense that’s found its footing and features plenty of high-caliber talent, whether it be the receiver duo of Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Collin Johnson, Ehlinger, or a plenty capable running back duo of Tre Watson and Keaontay Ingram, it would be safe to assume Kansas will be in for a long day defensively against the Longhorns.
Nearly across the board, Friday’s regular-season finale meeting should favor Texas. Of course, the same could have been said in 2016 before the Longhorns fell in overtime, 24-21, but this Texas team isn’t anywhere near the depths it sank to at that point in the program’s history.
This time around, Texas is one heavily-favored win away from a trip to the Big 12 Championship and it’s quite unlikely that Kansas rises up and becomes the Longhorns roadblock.
Prediction: Texas - 38, Kansas - 17