Kansas plays host to No. 3 Baylor on Saturday, and in ways measurable and tangible, we may be witnessing the biggest mismatch in Big 12 history.
The Jayhawks are 0-4, barreling toward their first winless season in 61 years, and going with a true freshman quarterback making the first start of his career. The Bears are 4-0, coming off consecutive Big 12 regular-season championships, and beating opponents by an average score of 64-26. As of Monday evening, less than five days before the teams kick off at 11 a.m. Saturday, Baylor was a comfortable 44 1/2 -point favorite.
“I’m not really sure how you slow these guys down,” Kansas coach David Beaty said this week. “Because I don’t know many people that have.”
For a first-year head coach, Beaty understands Baylor’s new-age football machine better than most. He shares a similar background with Bears coach Art Briles — both were Texas high school coaches before breaking into college football — and Beaty spent the last three years recruiting against Briles as an assistant coach at Texas A&M.
He can tell you the high school backgrounds of Baylor’s vaunted receiving corps (“Some of the fastest humans on the planet at receiver for them,” Beaty says) and he can tell you the names of Baylor quarterback Seth Russell’s parents, who raised their son just a few blocks from where Beaty grew up in Garland, Texas.
Russell, in fact, once committed to Kansas when Beaty was an assistant for Turner Gill in 2011. But when Gill was fired, new Kansas coach Charlie Weis didn’t honor the scholarship offer, and Russell landed at Baylor. Four years later, he is a trendy Heisman candidate, throwing for 1,281 yards and 19 touchdowns in four games while guiding the nation’s highest scoring offense.
“They’re a football team that is where we aspire to go,” Beaty said. “For us being able to look at what they’ve done and the maturation of their program under coach Briles. I think this is a great, great week for us.”
Beaty could have a different feeling come Saturday afternoon. The Bears enter the weekend with the nation’s second-best ground attack, a weaponized spread scheme averaging 376.8 rushing yards per contest. On its face, this would appear a disastrous matchup for Kansas, which is surrendering an average of 251.5 rushing yards per game, a mark that ranks among the bottom 10 in the Football Bowl Subdivision. To keep pace with this attack, the Jayhawks must turn to true freshman quarterback Ryan Willis, who will start in place of an injured Montell Cozart.
On Monday morning, Beaty acknowledged the gargantuan challenge, and he conceded that it could lead to a more conservative game plan. In his first season at Kansas, Beaty has been resolute in establishing an up-tempo identity. But pushing the pace against Baylor could be like spraying gasoline on a structure fire.
“We’ll adjust a little bit, playing against these guys,” Beaty said. “Limiting possessions is going to be big. So we’ve got to take advantage of our possessions, and when we get opportunities to take it away, we have to capitalize on those. It’ll be a great challenge. There’s no doubt about that.”
In the end, though, the bigger question may be this: Will Briles, an old Texas high school coach, have mercy on one of his kin?
“I know David really well,” Briles said this week. “He’s a great coach; he’s done a great job.”
At his news conference on Monday, Briles appeared unfazed when asked about the six-touchdown point spread and the cartoonish discrepancy between the two teams. Baylor has national championship aspirations and Briles views the Big 12 season as a playoff. A road victory is enough, Briles said, regardless of the score.
“If we can get out of their 7-6,” Briles said, “Boy, I’ll get on that plane just happy as I can be.”
Whether or not you believe Briles’ coach speak, we can all agree on this: Kansas-Baylor is a mismatch of historic proportions — a depleted roster vs. one of the country’s hottest programs — and the Jayhawks recognize the challenge ahead.
“The truth is, I don’t know that many people have slowed them down just a whole lot,” Beaty said. “They get yards. They’re going to get their yards. We have to try to find a way to create points on our side offensively and then limit their possibilities of scoring.”