86 Days: Should Kansas Football Really Be Favored to Win The Big 12?

ESPN's FPI has the Jayhawks as the favorites for the conference championship this season. But does that really make sense?
Texas Head Coach Steve Sarkisian raises the Big 12 Championship Trophy after winning the Big 12 Conference Championship Game 49-21 over Oklahoma State at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023
Texas Head Coach Steve Sarkisian raises the Big 12 Championship Trophy after winning the Big 12 Conference Championship Game 49-21 over Oklahoma State at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023 / Sara Diggins/American-Statesman / USA
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The Kansas Jayhawks have come a long way under Lance Leipold. But even the biggest supporters of the program likely didn't see this coming in just Year 4. According to ESPN's FPI metric that was released this week, the Jayhawks are the highest-rated team out of the Big 12 and the favorites to win the conference championship this season.

The backlash on Twitter was immediate, with many making the customary "in basketball?" jokes or just downright trashing the metric. But the more you look at what the metric is saying, the more reasonable the result becomes.

So what is it that makes Kansas rate so well according to ESPN? There are three main things that go into the rating and odds:

Returning Talent

According to the ESPN website, the preseason ratings for FPI focus on the returning starters, "with special consideration given to starting quarterbacks or transfer quarterbacks with starting experience".

There is no doubt that the Jayhawks have one the biggest cores of returning talent, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Replacing a very productive Jason Bean with a better rated Jalon Daniels will definitely do that for you, but the top two running backs and top three wide receivers will make his reintroduction to the offense all the more successful.

But it isn't just the offensive side of the ball that has a lot of starters returning. The majority of the defensive secondary is back. The front seven had some significant losses, but they were replaced by productive guys that have the potential to step up in a big way.

Lack of Standouts

Say what you will about the Big 12 as a whole and how they stack up with the other conferences, but there are no clear favorites now that Oklahoma and Texas have moved on to the SEC. Newcomers Arizona and Utah look to be strong, and Kansas State and Oklahoma State again look to have solid squads. But there is no one that you look at immediately and say that they should be THE team this year.

And the FPI numbers bear that out. Kansas is ranked 17th in the metric, but six more teams come in the top 30. Kansas State slots in at 22, with Arizona (24), Oklahoma State (26), Utah (27), Texas Tech (29), TCU (30), UCF (32) and West Virginia (35) all have a 5.0% or greater chance of winning the conference.

A prolific offense is key to being successful in today's game, especially in the Big 12. It makes sense that the Jayhawks would not only lead the pack due to what they are returning, but that they wouldn't be able to create a significant gap thanks to a defense that still has plenty of room for improvement.

The Schedule

When looking at the conference odds, Kansas has a huge leg up on the other contenders. They only face one team in the conference that is projected to have more than 7.0 wins, and that is a rivalry game against the Wildcats. In fact, other than TCU, the other seven games are against 7 of the 8 worst teams in the conference according to FPI. While that isn't a guarantee of anything, playing games on the road against BYU and Arizona State should be good opportunities for wins, and the games at Baylor and West Virginia will be tough tests but ones that Kansas has been extremely competitive in, even when they were the worse team.


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Andy Mitts

ANDY MITTS

Andy Mitts is an alumnus of the University of Kansas, graduating in 2007. He previously covered the Jayhawks at Rock Chalk Talk and is now the editor-in-chief at Blue Wing Rising. He hosts the Kansas-themed Rock Chalk Podcast, and is VP of Membership of the Ten 12 Podcast Network. Follow him on Twitter @AndyMitts12.