Kansas Jayhawks Undefeated (But Not For Long)
NCAA Week 4 - In a battle of unexpectedly undefeated teams, Kansas defeated Duke 35-27 on Saturday to keep a dream season rolling for the Jayhawks into the month of October. Their 4-0 start now features victories over West Virginia and Houston in addition to the Blue Devils and FCS Tennessee Tech, far from a murderer's row. But they have a respectable collection of pelts on the wall in comparison to the rest of the nation. A merely average team would be expected to win only 2.7 games against Kansas' schedule to date, and the Jayhawks' 1.3 "wins above average" ranks 10th nationally.
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It has been a remarkable start to the season in Lawrence, especially considering that Kansas was firmly entrenched in the FBS cellar for more than a decade. Since 2010, the Jayhawks never finished a season ranked higher than No. 85 in FEI, and they ranked outside of the top 100 in seven of those 12 seasons. The Jayhawks never won more than three games (including games against FCS opponents) in a season from 2010 through 2021, a 12-year stretch led by four consecutive failed coaching regimes. Current head coach Lance Leipold's six wins through 16 games is already a better total than three of his predecessors managed to win over multiple full seasons at Kansas (five wins for Turner Gill from 2010-2011, five for Charlie Weis from 2012-2014, three for Les Miles from 2019-2020), and he has matched the total number of victories racked up by David Beatty (6-42 from 2015-2018) in 32 fewer games.
The Jayhawks' offensive production has surged this season under Leipold. Junior quarterback Jalon Daniels ranks among the nation's leaders in yards per pass attempt (9.6), he has thrown 11 touchdown passes against only one interception, and he ranks second among quarterbacks and seventh among all players in rushing yards per attempt (8.4). Unlike other highly productive offenses, Kansas is ruthlessly efficient and not particularly explosive. Considering only non-garbage results against FBS opponents, the Jayhawks rank eighth nationally in offensive yards per play (7.6) but only 64th nationally in the percentage of offensive drives that average at least 10 yards per play (13%). They don't gobble yards, they chew them methodically.
That's critical because the Kansas defense has been almost completely unreliable. In non-garbage time against FBS opponents through Week 4, they have allowed 3.4 points per drive (113th nationally), 6.8 yards per play (109th), and 66% of available yards (122nd), and they are allowing 86% of opponent drives to earn at least one first down (121st). They currently rank 125th in opponent-adjusted DFEI, more than 30 spots worse than the next-worst team with an undefeated record (DFEI No. 94 TCU). Kansas won a thriller in overtime against West Virginia in Week 2 with a walk-off pick-six, a play that was one of the only defensive stops they made in the entire game. Their three FBS opponents have had a combined total of only seven punts against the Jayhawks.
For Kansas and other teams that have played three FBS opponents to date, preseason projections still carry 54% of the weight in the current FEI ratings. That is a big reason why, despite the strong start, Kansas has only climbed to No. 81 overall in this week's ratings; 37 spots better than where they started the year, but still ranked among the weakest Power 5 teams. Just as significantly, the Jayhawks' huge strides on offense have masked their defensive deficiencies, and FEI may be reflecting an appropriate level of skepticism for the remainder of the year.
Kansas is an undefeated team that absolutely earned each of its four wins. But they aren't just exceeding preseason expectations (which, admittedly, were a bit off the mark). They have 1.8 more wins than a team of their offensive and defensive caliber "should" have against their schedule to date, calculated retroactively. The pendulum doesn't automatically swing back and course-correct on such things week to week, but a 4-0 start doesn't mean Kansas will cruise to bowl eligibility either. FEI win projections currently give the Jayhawks only a 43% likelihood of finishing the season with six or more wins, and a 20% chance they could lose each of their next eight. Such is life in the Big 12, a conference likely without a national championship contender but loaded with a deep collection of good teams, all of which the Jayhawks will face in the coming months.
A strong showing against Iowa State this weekend would shake more of the Jayhawks' poor recent history data out of the FEI system and we'll adjust Kansas' season prospects if so. But this also could be the week that recalibrates Kansas' expectations somewhere between "all the way down" and "all the way back." Either way, Leipold and the Jayhawks have already emerged from the depths and have our attention.
2022 FEI Ratings (through Week 4)
Fremeau Efficiency Index ratings (FEI) are opponent-adjusted possession efficiency data representing the per-possession scoring advantage a team would be expected to have on a neutral field against an average opponent. Offense ratings (OFEI) and defense ratings (DFEI) are opponent-adjusted drive efficiency data representing the per-drive scoring advantage a team unit would be expected to have against an average opponent unit. Net drive efficiency (NDE) is the sum of offensive drive efficiency and defensive drive efficiency data representing scoring value earned by offense and defense units per drive. Strength of schedule ratings represent the expected number of losses an elite team two standard deviations better than average would have against each team's schedule to date (ELS), the expected number of losses a good team one standard deviation above average would have against the schedule to date (GLS), and the expected number of losses an average team would have against the schedule to date (ALS). Ratings for all 131 teams are found here, and expanded ratings including projected win totals are found here.