LAWRENCE — Kansas football’s upcoming season will be the end of an era.
That statement rings true regardless what the future holds for embattled coach David Beaty.
The Jayhawks enter the 2018 campaign with 25 seniors on their current roster, by far the most of any KU squad under fourth-year coach Beaty. Led by preseason All-Big 12 picks Daniel Wise and Joe Dineen, the Jayhawks boast 12 combined senior starters on offense and defense, with true freshman cornerback Corione Harris the only non-upperclassman starter on the team’s projected depth chart.
The stink of the Charlie Weis era has been almost fully expunged, but also gone are the excuses.
If the Jayhawks are ever to win under Beaty, well, this season appears their best shot.
“Is there pressure? Listen: Anybody that tells you they don’t have pressure in this job is lying,” Beaty said July 16 at Big 12 media days. “There is pressure, but that is what makes it so fun, and I love that. I love that I’m at a place where it matters.
“Our vision continues to remain the same at KU with our program: It’s to build a championship program that stands the test of time.”
With that in mind, here are two key questions, players and matchups for this year’s Jayhawks:
1. Will Beaty be fired?
New athletic director Jeff Long insists Beaty will get a fair shot to prove himself — “Coach Beaty is our coach, and we all need to support this program,” he said at his July 11 introductory news conference — and he recently told The Topeka Capital-Journal that he believes coaching changes are best made at the end of seasons.
That said, how many victories will it take for Beaty to retain his job?
Mired in a 3-33 slump to start his head coaching career, with just one of those wins coming against an FBS-level opponent, Beaty signed a contract extension in December 2016 that takes his current deal through the 2021 campaign.
2. Can special teams achieve competency?
In surrendering 18.3 yards per opponent punt return last season, the Jayhawks ranked 129th nationally -- dead last among all FBS-level programs. On the flip side, KU hasn’t returned a punt for a score since an Aug. 30, 2008 contest against FIU.
While the team’s offensive and defensive struggles have been well documented, mere competency from a special teams unit that last season muffed and fumbled away countless yards of field position may be the most surefire way to reach competitiveness. Longtime Beaty assistant Kenny Perry will try his hand at coaching that group this fall.
1. Senior quarterback Peyton Bender
This season represents Take 2 for Bender, who won last season’s quarterback competition but scuffled to the tune of 1,609 passing yards, 10 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a 54.2-percent completion percentage across eight starts.
It was unquestionably a letdown performance for the former Itawamba Community College and Washington State transfer, but Bender believes he has improved his coverage recognition skills this offseason. The traditional pocket passer should be playing behind a more skilled offensive line, which will also help.
With the Jayhawks’ three most winnable games coming in Weeks 1, 2 and 3, choosing the right starting quarterback was without question the most important decision of Beaty’s coaching career. Now it’s up to Bender to validate that decision.
2. Freshman cornerback Corione Harris
If the buzz coming out of KU’s preseason practices is accurate, the aforementioned New Orleans native Harris has more than earned his distinction as the team’s lone underclassman starter.
A four-star high school prospect and a rare recruiting coup for the Jayhawks, Harris enters defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach Clint Bowen’s system as perhaps the unit’s most intriguing piece. Can the 6-foot-1, 180-pounder hold his own in a pass-happy conference? If he can, look for an uptick from the team’s 109th-ranked total defense -- and more than the four total interceptions the group mustered last year.
1. vs. Nicholls State (6 p.m. Sept. 1)
At most Power Five programs, the notion a nonconference contest against an FCS-level opponent could be a team’s most pivotal game would likely be considered a joke.
For the Jayhawks, though, the Colonels are no laughing matter.
Nicholls State played Texas A&M tough in a 24-14 defeat last season in College Station and this year tout a litany of key contributors and intriguing new faces. The Jayhawks have the most to lose in their season opener, where a defeat to the relatively unknown program out of Thibodaux, La., would all but seal Beaty’s fate.
2. at Central Michigan (2 p.m. Sept. 8)
If the Jayhawks’ season opener is the team’s most important contest, their Week 2 bout with the Chippewas isn’t far behind.
Many expect Central Michigan to have a down season, and a KU victory at Kelly/Shorts Stadium would not only avenge last season’s 45-27 defeat in Lawrence but also end the program’s staggering 46-game road losing streak.
The skid, which dates back to Sept. 12, 2009, is the longest such streak at college football’s highest level. Ridding the program of its most prominent embarrassment is imperative, and the contest against Central Michigan presents the Jayhawks’ best -- and perhaps only -- opportunity to do so.