It might be too early to call any game a “must win” when it comes to bowl eligibility, but Saturday’s Big 12 conference opener between the Kansas Jayhawks and Baylor Bears is arguably the closest thing to it in Week 4.
Both Kansas and Baylor enter the contest with a 2-1 record, and though both have already surpassed their win totals from 2017, both are also lamenting missed opportunities. The Jayhawks stubbed their toe in a big way in the season opener by losing to FCS opponent Nicholls in overtime but have responded with impressive performances in back-to-back wins over FBS competition (including a 55-14 domination of Rutgers last week). Baylor started stronger by beating Abilene Christian and UTSA in its first two games but lost to Duke 40-27 as a home favorite last week, falling behind 23-0 before halftime.
As projected bottom-feeders in the conference, and especially after missing the chance to post an undefeated mark in non-conference action, starting 3-1 overall and 1-0 in league play is imperative. A loss this week, coupled with a full slate of talented Big 12 opponents left to play, would require multiple upsets in the second half of the season for either team to reach bowl eligibility.
Kansas at Baylor
Kickoff:Saturday, Sept. 22 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Baylor -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Best in the Big 12?
Neither team has played a conference opponent yet, so all the regular caveats apply — especially considering the small sample size of the young season. That said, Kansas currently has the best defense in the Big 12, statistically speaking. Through three games, the Jayhawks have allowed an average of just 294.3 total yards per contest, which ranks 15th nationally. KU has surrendered 4.46 yards per play, which ranks No. 24 — one spot behind Alabama and two behind Washington, which is good company to keep on the national leaderboard.
One of the top reasons for Kansas’ success defensively has been its ability to force turnovers. Specifically, the Jayhawks have recorded 13 takeaways, the most in the FBS. Kansas has intercepted seven passes (all by different players, three of whom returned theirs for a touchdown). Only North Texas (9) has more picks through the first three weeks of the season. Coupled with an offense that has turned the football over just once, KU also leads the nation in turnover margin (+12).
Finally, on an individual level, senior linebacker Joe Dineen Jr. has recorded 40 tackles (plus one of those interceptions), which leads the conference by a large margin. Dineen ranks third nationally with an average of 13.3 stops per contest. Keith Loneker Jr. ranks third in the league with 24 total tackles.
2. Kansas rushing attack vs. Baylor run defense
On the other side of the coin, Baylor has posted mediocre numbers on defense. The Bears have allowed 373.3 total yards per game, which sits in the bottom half in the league and 70th nationally. Like Kansas, who has allowed 146.7 rushing yards per game, the Bears’ biggest weakness has been shutting down opponents on the ground. Baylor ranks No. 9 in the conference in rush defense (181.0 yards allowed per game), which falls 90th nationally.
BU could be in trouble if it can’t slow down Kansas running back Pooka Williams, who has excelled in each of the Jayhawks victories this season. Williams, who eclipsed 100 rushing yards twice already, leads the Big 12 with 288 yards on the ground despite playing just two games. He has averaged 8.73 yards per carry and scored two touchdowns. But Williams isn’t the only dangerous ball carrier on the KU roster: Khalil Herbert, Dom Williams and Deron Thompson have all already reached 100 rushing yards on the season.
3. Baylor receiving corps vs. Kansas pass defense
Kansas has excelled shutting down opposing passing attacks this season. In addition to the interceptions the unit has forced, the Jayhawks have also limited opponents to 5.1 yards per pass attempt, which ranks second in the Big 12 and No. 11 nationally, and just one touchdown pass. Opposing quarterbacks have managed just an 81.05 rating so far, which is also second best in the country behind only Utah.
However, KU has yet to face a receiving corps as talented as the Bears. Baylor wideout Denzel Mims is widely considered one of the best receivers in the Big 12, and he has lived up to that reputation in 2018. Mims has averaged 19.36 yards per catch, hauling in 11 passes for 213 yards and a touchdown. But Mims might not even be the best receiver on the team anymore. Tennessee transfer Jalen Hurd, the 6-foot-4 former running back, has been the top target for BU quarterbacks Charlie Brewer and Jalan McClendon this season. Hurd leads the team with 18 receptions, 251 yards and two TDs.
Baylor is a seven-plus-point favorite at McLane Stadium, which is the exact situation it was in a week ago when the Bears lost to Duke. Though BU has a balanced and talented offense, Kansas has played very well on defense so far this season, and especially well against the pass. The Jayhawks have found their biggest offensive success on the ground, which has been the biggest weakness for the Baylor defense to date. KU has also won two in a row and has looked better each week, while BU is coming off a loss, and has been a little less impressive in each subsequent game.
On paper, that’s a lot of evidence to suggest Kansas could (and maybe should) win outright. Nevertheless, it’s still very difficult to trust the Jayhawks — especially in conference play. Baylor has played tougher competition to date, and the Bears have a more talented roster pound for pound. Throw in a bounce-back opportunity at home, in what is essentially a must-win situation, and Baylor is rightly the team to beat.
Prediction: Baylor 31, Kansas 21
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.