How Kansas football can make the College Football Playoff in 2024

Oklahoma State v Kansas
Oklahoma State v Kansas / Ed Zurga/GettyImages

Few Big 12 programs have as much momentum as Kansas football right now. Last season marked the program’s first nine-win season since 2007 after capping off the campaign with their first bowl victory in over a decade.

With that, the university extended head coach Lance Leipold’s contract through the 2029 season this past February.

Given the expanded playoff format, the window of having a shot to get in the 12-team race is obviously much larger and the parity of the sport has never been greater. With the Big 12 champion now automatically gifted a top-four spot in the new playoff, the conference, which appears to be wide open in 2024, will finally have a team other than Texas or Oklahoma make it in. The Jayhawks are a surefire contender to be one of them.

Here’s a closer look at why Kansas could make a surprise run at the College Football Playoff in 2024.

The mastermind

Like every program, it all starts up the top with the man in charge. Lance Leipold has transformed Kansas football from a program that went 21-99 in the decade before he arrived to a perennial Big 12 title contender — going from 2-10 to 6-7 to 9-4 over his three years in Lawrence.

But even before Kansas, Leipold was already a renowned program-builder. 

Leipold dominated on the Division 3 level at Wisconsin-Whitewater, winning six national titles and amassing a remarkable 106-6 record in eight years, while also reaching 100 wins faster than any coach in NCAA history. After that, he hopped to the FBS level and took Buffalo to the forefront of the MAC, highlighted by the program’s best single-season in school history in 2018 (10-3) — just two years after going 2-10.

He’s one of the most established program reigniters, let alone head coaches, in the entire country; so much so that he’s set a whole new standard for Kansas football — one that has gotten Jayhawk fans to start believing. Today’s Kansas program would be completely unrecognizable compared to when Leipold took the wheel in 2019. And they’re just getting started.

The talent

Coming off a nine-win campaign that was highlighted by a No. 23 ranking in the final AP Poll, Kansas returns 59 percent of its production from a season ago. Star quarterback Jalon Daniels, cornerback Cobee Bryant and 26 more players with starting experience are back for 2024.

Daniels, who went down with a season-ending injury in Week 4 last season, is back under center for a Jayhawks team that ranked 21st in the country in total offense last season with backup Jason Bean running the show. The 2022 second-team All-Big 12 selection led the FBS in total QBR just two seasons ago and looked as good as new in Spring Game action last week. Things could be even better for Daniels in year four.

The rushing attack ranked eighth in the FBS with 206 yards-per-game on the ground last season and gets its electric running back duo back for the third-straight year. Preseason Doak Walker Award candidate Devin Neal has posted back-to-back 1,000-plus yard rushing seasons, while teammate Daniel Hishaw Jr. is coming off a 626-yard, 5.2 yards-per-carry year himself. 

Kansas’ top-three pass catchers return, all of whom combine for 119 games of college experience. Headlining the wide receiver room is Lawrence “LJ” Arnold, who, despite missing spring practice due to a leg injury, led the team in receiving yards over the past two seasons.

The offensive line has some holes, but there are three projected returning starters. The group will also be fortified by several plug-and-play transfers like center and D-II Rimington Award winner Shane Bumgardner (Tiffin University).

How these players look in new offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes’ system will be interesting, but many similarities are being drawn between his and former coordinator Andy Kotelnicki’s pro-style offense.

The defense has some question marks in the front seven and needs depth, but the secondary will quietly be one of the nation’s best. Bryant, a two-time first-team All-Big 12 selection, and Mello Dotson, a 2023 second-team All-Big 12 selection, will feature one of the top cornerback duos in the country as the two combined for seven interceptions in 2023.

The schedule

According to Phil Steele, the Jayhawks will have the second-easiest conference schedule in 2024 to go along with winnable non-conference slate that includes Illinois and UNLV.

For starters, keep in mind that Kansas' home stadium will be under continued renovation this year, so it will be interesting to see how home field advantage plays a factor for them when hosting games in scattered locations, such as Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.

The games to circle on the calendar are road tests at West Virginia (Sept. 21) and at Kansas State (Oct. 26) in the Sunflower Showdown, as well as a home game against Iowa State (Nov. 9). Other than those three contests, Kansas will more than likely be favored in every other game on paper. Colorado certainly has the talent to knock them off, but the Jayhawks will be on their home turf. A visit to Baylor to close out the season could be a “trap game,” but it’s difficult to gauge how well-rounded Dave Aranda’s squad will be in 2024.

All in all, it’s a very favorable schedule for a Kansas team that is continuing to improve.

What seemed like an impossibility just several years ago suddenly seems well within reach: Kansas can make a legitimate run at a Big 12 title.

So, this begs the question: can Kansas break the mold as a playoff team in 2024? TCU did so in 2022 after flipping from a 5-7 team to reaching the national championship game 12 months later. A year before, Cincinnati cracked the code and clinched a playoff spot after running the table in a non-Power Five conference. Of course, these playoff appearances occurred in the four-team format. The odds of making it are now substantially higher for the playing field, and the Jayhawks could be that “out-of-nowhere” program that follows that same path to be a first-time playoff team in 2024.

It’d be a mistake to overlook them and don’t be surprised if they have the college football world’s full attention this fall.

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