Both 0-1 in Big 12 Conference play, Texas Tech and Kansas are set to meet in Lawrence Saturday. The Red Raiders (3-1) fell 41-34 to a ranked Oklahoma State squad in their league opener a week ago after a 3-0 non-conference slate that included wins over Arizona State and Houston.
The Jayhawks (1-3) opened their season with a win over FCS opponent Southeast Missouri State, but were unable to pick up a win against MAC foes Central Michigan or Ohio, and lost 56-34 to West Virginia in their Big 12 opener head into last week’s bye.
Texas Tech at Kansas
Kickoff: Saturday Oct. 7 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FS1
Spread: Texas Tech -17
Three Things to Watch
1. Improvement on defense
It’s well known Texas Tech finished dead last in FBS in both scoring defense (43.5 ppg allowed) and total defense (554.3 ypg) in 2016. Though still far from dominant defensively, the Red Raiders have made strides this season. Tech limited its non-conference opponents to an average of 26.3 points and 407.3 yards per game. The Red Raiders also held the opposition to 5.07 yards per play through the first three games after allowing more than seven yards per play a year ago.
Last week’s matchup with high-flying Oklahoma State was a difficult challenge, and Tech surrendered 41 points, 597 total yards and 7.28 yards per play in the loss, but the Red Raiders also stopped three drives in the red zone, forcing two field goal attempts (both misses). The defense also picked off a Mason Rudolph pass and returned it 95 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter.
On the other hand, Kansas has been inconsistent defensively. The Jayhawks have allowed a Big 12-worst 482.0 yards per game and 6.54 yards per play, which ranks No. 118 and No. 120 nationally, respectively. In their last game, the Jayhawks surrendered 630 yards and a whopping 7.74 yards per play to West Virginia.
2. Improvement on offense
The Red Raiders have had one of the most explosive offenses in the country every season since Kliff Kingsbury took over as head coach. In 2016, Tech led the nation in total offense (566.6 ypg) and passing offense (463.0 ypg). Even with quarterback Nic Shimonek taking over for first-round NFL draft pick Patrick Mahomes, this year’s offense has been similarly effective, averaging 536.0 total yards and 410.8 passing yards per game, along with 7.06 yards per play. Those numbers are good enough to rank among the top 15 teams in the FBS.
Kansas’s offense has been much less dynamic in recent years, but the Jayhawks are making progress. KU ranked last in the Big 12 in scoring offense (20.3 ppg), total offense (359.5 ypg) and yards per play (4.96) a year ago, but the Jayhawks have been much more effective in 2017. So far they are averaging 32.3 points and 480.5 yards per game, and six yards per play.
The majority of Kansas’ offensive production has come through the air. The Jayhawks threw for at least 323 yards in all three non-conference games and quarterback Peyton Bender ranks fifth in the conference with 1,227 passing yards. Bender has thrown seven touchdowns but he has just as many interceptions – more than any other Big 12 quarterback – including at least one in every game and multiple picks in three of them.
But the Jayhawks also have made progress on the ground, especially in the last two weeks. After rushing for just 10 yards in his first two games combined, sophomore running back Khalil Herbert has exploded for 428 yards and four touchdowns over the last two games, including 291 yards against West Virginia. The sophomore is averaging a robust 7.6 yards per carry.
3. Pass rush
One of the most impressive aspects of the Texas Tech defense has been its pass rush. Led by Tony Jones and Eli Howard, the Red Raiders have recorded seven sacks, including at least one in each of their four games. Odds are high Tech will find success again Saturday since the Jayhawks have surrendered nine sacks already this year.
Kansas was expected to be similarly successful rushing the passer. Dorance Armstrong Jr. was expected to be a Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year candidate, but the edge rusher has been held without a sack through the first quarter of the season. Overall, the Jayhawks have recorded just three sacks, but Armstrong and company have an opportunity to break through against a pass-heavy offense that has already surrendered eight sacks.
With its always explosive offense and improving defense, Texas Tech has looked like a bowl-bound squad with the potential to make things difficult for Big 12 title contenders this season. Kansas has shown improvement under head coach David Beaty, but the losses to Central Michigan and Ohio were disappointing for a team that hoped to compete for a postseason berth.
Kansas has a natural advantage coming off a bye with an extra week to prepare, and also is playing at home. However, the Jayhawks are the less talented team and their defensive struggles are alarming given the potent nature of Tech’s offense. And, even though the Kansas offense is on the rise, the Tech defense has been similarly improved. Expect the Jayhawks to start strong, but for the Tech talent advantage to show itself in the second half as the Red Raiders leave Lawrence with their first Big 12 win.
Prediction: Texas Tech 42, Kansas 24
– Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NichcolasIAllen.