Kansas second-year head football coach Lance Leipold is thrilled his team is going to be facing Arkansas in the Liberty Bowl and there are plenty of people happy for Leipold.
The Jayhawks (6-6), who won their first five games and vaulted into the Top 25 before injuries factored into losing six of seven to finish the season, will take on the Razorbacks (6-6) Dec. 28 in Memphis.
“My phone has blown up,” Leipold said on a Liberty Bowl press conference Sunday afternoon. “Not just fans and supporters but coaches around the country and former coaches that have had the opportunity to be a part of a bowl game. Everyone says what a great experience it’s been for them and for the players.”
Kansas football has been one of the nation’s last successful programs, having gone 9-60 from 2014-2020 before former Buffalo coach Leipold took over in 2021 and led his first team to a 2-10 record.
Now in year two, the Jayhawks are headed to their first bowl game since 2008 when head coach Mike Mangino and Kansas beat Minnesota 42-21 in the Insight Bowl.
“I saw a lot of smiles and cheers,” Leipold said when his players got the news officially. “I’ve seen the look of some seniors and upperclassmen who really probably had doubts that something like this was ever going to happen in their career. I saw a lot of pride and excitement. We’ve been talking about it ever since we clinched bowl eligibility (with a win over Oklahoma State on Nov. 5) , the opportunity to be together for an extra month, the importance of the development.
“But you know the official sign of accomplishment and a huge step for a program that has struggled for a dozen years. Extremely proud of them. Extremely proud of the job our coaching staff has done, our assistant coaches for getting this done as quickly as we have.
“Again, all of that gets to be put on display in Memphis, Tenn., later this month.”
The Jayhawks reeled off five wins to start the season, something that brought ESPN’s College GameDay Show to Lawrence on Oct. 8 for what turned into a 38-31 loss to College Football Playoff semifinalist TCU.
Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels was hurt in the game and missed the net five games.
“Well, we got off to a fast start, the fastest start we’ve had here in a long time,” Leipold said. “Really proud of the way we got off, especially two road wins where we fell behind and battled back to get road victories against two good opponents in West Virginia and Houston. Able to get another couple of home wins against Duke and Iowa State and then we were fortunate to have College GameDay come to Lawrence, Kan., for the first time and battled what we see now to be a CFP playoff team.
“Unfortunately in that game, our starting quarterback and someone who was getting into the Heisman race, Jalon Daniels went down. We had a couple of other injuries. Daniel Highshaw was a highly productive RB, lost him a week earlier. Kind of hit a bump there.”
Jason Bean filled in for Daniels and led Kansas to a 37-16 win over Oklahoma State, but the Jayhawks followed by losing at Texas Tech (43-28), a home game to Texas (55-14) and at Kansas State (47-27).
“We had to battle back,” Leipold said. “ Jason Bean, our backup quarterback, played extremely well. But we kind of hit a hard patch of the season where things were a little rough. But we were able to defeat a rated Oklahoma State team at home to secure bowl eligibility and here we are.
“I think as we prepare for this bowl game I think we’ll be the healthiest we’ve been since probably that early October period. We’re excited to take on a quality opponent in the Arkansas Razorbacks.”
Leipold noted he didn’t have a timetable in turning the program around, but was surprised by the early success.
Kansas ended 2021 with a road win at Texas (57-56), a road loss at TCU (31-28) and at home to West Virginia (34-28).
“I try not to put parameters and ceiling on things,” Leipold said. “ But to get off to the start we did was definitely probably surprising. And yet at the same time when we looked at the schedule and the way we ended a year ago, we thought we were on the right trajectory that if could find a way to get a win at West Virginia, who knows what kind of confidence this team could start really building upon.
“… I think if you held it up to me, I’d say I didn’t know if we could make the jump from 2 wins to 6 maybe immediately. But as I’ve said I’ll never bet against this group and the coaches that work with them daily…We’ve got so many things going right now, it’s kind of exciting. I hope this becomes the norm for this program.”
Leipold, who coached at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater from 2007-2014 and Buffalo from 2015-2020, was asked about parallels with Arkansas.
The Razorbacks went through a pair of 2-10 seasons under former head coach Chad Morris and had won just 4 of 23 games before Sam Pitman was hired in December of 2019.
Pittman’s teams have gone 3-7, 9-4 and 6-6 at Arkansas, who lost 6 of its last 9 games this season after starting the season 3-0 and entertaining the Top 10 in both the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches poll.
“Yeah, for our first year a year ago and looking at the job he did, I don’t know Coach Pittman very well,” Leipold said. “ I’ve met him. I know a lot of people that do. He’s highly respected. He was always a highly respected offensive line coach and professional in college football. He’s done an outstanding job and has really turned that program around. Again, I think he does things the right way. They’re well coached.
“Hopefully there are some good parallels between what they did a year ago and what we were able to do this year.”
Leipold is aware that a seventh win this season would bring several benefits.
“Obviously I think any time you can end your season with a win and playing well helps the momentum as you head into second semester, winter conditioning, spring ball,” Leipold said. “It helps you in recruiting, again, with the extra exposure. And again, for us to play a quality opponent and a team from the SEC, I think is always another feather in our cap, so to speak, that we can continue to gain confidence as we continue to build our program.
“There’s a lot of things that are needed and we’re going to need to play well and prepare well to go to Memphis and play Arkansas, but there can be a lot of positives that come out of it.
Kansas’ coaches are road recruiting so bowl practice will not begin until Friday.
“Then we’ll hit the practice field Friday, Saturday, Sunday and start working back the players that didn’t practice last week and slowly start building in a routine and a game plan,” Leipold said. “We’ve had some mock calendars put together in how we want to do this. We’ll solidify those here as I travel around and as we get ready to get into full preparation a little bit later before we get on the plane to Memphis.”
The Jayhawks will look to get in as many practices as possible before heading to Memphis.
“We feel very comfortable with the amount of practices that we have,” Leipold said. “It’s not about as many, it’s about the work that we want to get certain individuals, but make sure that the first unit, second unit, the guys that have been playing are rested, healthy, but prepared and we can stay as sharp as we can with this layoff.
“That’s always a balance. But we want to make sure we maximize every opportunity that we have within the schedule allowed.”