Mandel’s Final Thoughts: Leipold brings Kansas to life, how high is the Jayhawks’ ceiling?

And now, 20 Final Thoughts from Week 3, which began Friday evening and, thanks to the weather in Iowa, threatened to bleed into the early NFL games on Sunday.

1. No doubt this column will be full of thoughts later this season about Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State and their blueblood friends. This week, however, I must call your attention to a burgeoning story of epic proportions.

And that of course is the Rise Of Kansas Football Like A Phoenix From The Ashes.

2. Kansas has been a punchline for nearly as long as Nick Saban has been at Alabama, but I’m here to tell you: The Jayhawks are good this year. Seriously.

Second-year coach/messiah Lance Leipold’s team went to Houston Saturday and beat the preseason AAC favorite 48-30. This on the heels of winning at West Virginia. The Jayhawks, now 3-0 for the first time since 2009 (which was also the last time they’ve finished a season better than 3-9), are averaging a mere 53.0 points per game behind third-year QB Jalon Daniels, a form Middle Tennessee State commit who Leipold has developed into a legit Big 12 playmaker.

3. I’m not saying Kansas is going to the Orange Bowl like it did back in 2008, but I will call my shot right here and say the Jayhawks will win at least six games this season. At which point Leipold, 58, who took 35 years in the business to rise to Power 5 head coach, will be in all sorts of demand.

But first: A mega-showdown in Lawrence between two undefeated teams: Duke at Kansas. It’s not the Champions Classic, it’s a Big September Football Game.

4. Some coaches rely on the portal to plug holes in the roster. James Franklin did it the old-fashioned way. Five-star freshman RB Nick Singleton and classmate Kaytron Allen have transformed Penn State’s recently stagnant offense. Singleton was marvelous in the Nittany Lions’ 41-12 rout at Auburn, breaking two 50-plus yard runs. With a much-improved running game, QB Sean Clifford looks like he is longer pressing, thus avoiding turnovers, while Penn State’s own defense looks salty as ever. These Nittany Lions inspire much more confidence than the 2020 and ’21 editions.

That is, the opposite of Auburn coach Bryan Harsin.

5. I don’t know how many games Oklahoma winds up winning, but it will likely be more than seven. What idiot would have predicted that anyway? The Sooners allowed a TD on Nebraska’s opening possession but then held the Cornhuskers until the last drive of a 49-14 rout. QB Dillon Gabriel did a nice job spreading the ball around, but just as notably, this looked more like a Brent Venables Clemson defense than a Lincoln Riley/Alex Grinch OU defense. Keep an eye on Sooners freshman LB Jaren Kanak, who forced a fumble and led the team with 10 tackles.

6. While I’m sure Texas A&M was thrilled to beat Miami by any score Saturday night, the Aggies’ 17-9 win did little to ease concerns about Jimbo Fisher’s offense. Switching from QB Haynes King to Max Johnson (10 of 20 for 140 yards and one TD) did not make a whole lot of difference because the rest of A&M’s offense is so underwhelming. The Aggies gained just 264 total yards. Fortunately for them, Mario Cristobal’s Canes weren’t ready for prime time. Too many special teams miscues, poor clock management and other woes. Amazingly, A&M’s defense allowed 27 first downs but zero touchdowns.

7. The Pac-12 is suddenly all sorts of fun. We figured Lincoln Riley would turn USC into an overnight offensive juggernaut, but Kalen DeBoer has engineered a similar, less-anticipated transformation at Washington.

Saturday night, on the same home field where Jimmy Lake’s offenses struggled to complete a pass, Indiana transfer QB Michael Penix Jr. led the Huskies to touchdowns on five of their first six possessions against No. 11 Michigan State. By night’s end, he was 24 of 40 for 397 yards and four touchdowns in a 39-28 win that wasn’t nearly as close as the score. Penix is ​​at 10 TDs against one INT through his first three games.

Coming into the season, Washington fans would have been thrilled for the Huskies just to get back above .500. It turns out they might be a legit Pac-12 title contender.

8. But the Huskies’ Pacific Northwest rivals aren’t going away. Washington State, which had its own notable Big Ten upset last week at Wisconsin, and Oregon State, are simultaneously 3-0 for the first time since 1915 (!) Meanwhile, Bo Nix and the Ducks reassured fans that hey, Georgia beats everyone like that, by finding No. 12 BYU 41-20. Nix (13 of 18 for 222 yards and two TDs plus three rushing TDs) hit on several big downfield plays, including a 50-yarder to Troy Franklin. Auburn fans know well the highs and lows of the Bo Nix Experience, and I’d expect it to be a similar ride the rest of the way.

Washington QB Michael Penix Jr. was 24-for-40 with 397 yards Saturday in the Huskies’ 39-28 win over Michigan State. (Joe Nicholson/USA Today)

9. But USC’s offense is just another thing entirely. Every time Caleb Williams snapped the ball against Fresno State you wondered which Trojan was going to break off a huge gain this time. On one third-quarter drive, it was RB Raleek Brown (8 yards), followed by WR Mario Williams (35 yards), followed by a Caleb Williams keeper (10 yards), and finally a 25-yard Travis Dye TD run. Nine different players caught passes from Williams. It will take a team with elite pass-rushers to slow these guys down.

10. It’s been a long time since anyone could say this, but Georgia’s offense is darn fun to watch. OC Todd Monken has so many unique weapons at his disposal. For example: How is anyone supposed to defend Georgia’s 6-foot-4, 230-pound TE/WR Brock Bowers? He scored three TDs in the Dawgs’ 48-7 drubbing of South Carolina – one on an end-around off a reverse, one on a contested end-zone fade and the third on a 78-yard catch-and-run over the middle . Good luck, opponents.

11. After five years in the desert, Mike Norvell has restored respectability at Florida State. A team that started 0-4 last season is 3-0, with big wins away from home against LSU and Louisville. The ‘Noles escaped Friday night despite losing QB Jordan Travis and star DE Jared Verse to knee injuries. Arizona State transfer WR Johnny Wilson (seven catches, 149 yards, two TDs) was dominant, and RB Treshaun Ward was explosive. Backup QB Tate Rodemaker played well, but here’s hoping Travis is healthy enough to return later in the season.

12. LSU showed some moxie in shaking off an early 13-0 deficit against Mississippi State to win 31-16. It was a one-point game deep into the fourth quarter, but with Brian Kelly screaming at him from the sideline, QB Jayden Daniels hit five third or fourth-down completions on the drive to go up 24-16. Daniels and sophomore WR Malik Nabers have a nice connection, sophomore RB Armoni Goodwin broke a game-sealing 47-yard TD and LSU’s defense, led by CB Jay Ward and defensive end BJ Ojulari, held Mike Leach’s offense to 289 yards. Tigers fans should feel a lot better than they did after the Florida State debacle.

13. Marcus Freeman looked mightily relieved to finally get his first win as Notre Dame’s head coach, especially after Cal’s last-ditch Hail Mary very nearly wound up in the wrong hands. The Irish grinded their way to a 24-17 victory that laid bare the inherent challenges now facing them. Without injured QB Tyler Buchner and with no obvious No. 1 receiver, Notre Dame will have to lean heavily on its run game. In that regard, sophomore Audric Estime (18 carries, 76 yards, one TD) is emerging as a reliable counterpart to Chris Tyree.

14. No Week 1 result proved more disappointing than Florida’s dramatic win over Utah. The Gators were extremely fortunate to survive visiting USF, which botched a third-down snap, then a field goal hold when a chip-shot would have sent the game to overtime. Final: 31-28. Florida QB Anthony Richardson, who looked so dynamic against the Utes, was just 10 of 18 for 112 yards and two picks. Not the most encouraging tuneup right before Billy Napier’s team visits Knoxville.

(Utah, it should be noted, beat San Diego State 35-7 on Saturday.)

15. Texas did not suffer the post-Alabama letdown I anticipated, instead dominating the second half to pull away from UTSA, 41-20. RB Bijan Robinson had one of his best games, carrying 20 times for 183 yards and three TDs with a 19-yard catch. I’m still not fully sure what to expect as the ‘Horns begin Big 12 play this week at Texas Tech, but if nothing else, Steve Sarkisian’s second team seems more resilient and less likely to beat itself in games.

Appalachian State hosted GameDay on Saturday and sealed a near-perfect day in Boone with a Hail Mary to beat Troy 32-28. (Reinhold Matay / USA Today)

16. No team has had a more eventful September than Appalachian State. Week 1: Score 40 fourth-quarter points against UNC but still lose. Week 2: Stun Texas A&M in College Station. Week 3: Host GameDay AND beat Troy on a Chase Brice Hail Mary that didn’t reach the end zone, but was deflected into the hands of Christian Horn, who took it the rest of the way. Shawn Clark’s team would sure love to have that UNC game back, but this still feels like the start of a special season.

17. Congratulations, Syracuse. The Orange are 3-0 for just the second time in Dino Babers’ tenure following a dramatic 32-29 home win over Purdue. But Jeff Brohm is going to be kicking himself over this one for a long, long time. The Boilermakers outgained the Orange 485-306. They went up 29-25 with 51 seconds left. But two subsequent unsportsmanlike fouls (one on Brohm himself) led to Syracuse starting at the 50. Two more penalties set up Garrett Shrader’s game-winning 25-yard TD pass with seven seconds left. That’s two heartbreakers in the three weeks.

18. Northwestern’s top 10 finish in the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season feels a lot longer than two years ago. The Wildcats (1-2) have lost 11 of their 15 games since, and Saturday’s was arguably the worst of Pat Fitzgerald’s 17-year tenure: a 31-24 defeat to 0-2 FCS foe Southern Illinois. The abrupt downfall began after long DC Mike Hankwitz’s retirement. Under replacement Jim O’Neil, the Wildcats slipped from No. 10 to No. 106 last season. His unit got shredded Saturday by an FCS team that lost its opener 64-29 to Incarnate Ward.

Poor Nebraska still lost to those guys, though.

19. Shout out at Tulane, 3-0 for the first time since its undefeated 1998 team after a huge 17-10 win at Kansas State. Willie Fritz has been there since 2016 and always seemed to be on the cusp of a breakthrough before backsliding to 2-10 last season. QB Michael Pratt, considered a sleeper NFL prospect, led a go-ahead drive with 4:27 left, and the Green Wave defense held K-State star Deuce Vaughn to his lowest rushing yardage (81) in his last nine games.

It didn’t look like a fluke. Watch out for Tulane in this year’s AAC race.

20. Finally, we’d like to know what Iowa fans did to tick off the football gods. First, the Hawkeyes suffered through two full games with zero touchdowns scored. Then, Iowa finally got two of them against Nevada, only for Mother Nature to unleash a lightning storm for the ages that sent Saturday’s game into *three* weather delays totaling nearly *four hours.*

Shoutout to all black and gold supporters who stayed from the 6:30 pm kickoff through the 1:39 am final gun of their team’s 27-0 win.

If by chance any Nevada fans did the same, please seek help immediately.

(Top photo of Kansas tight end Jared Casey and wide receiver Quentin Skinner: Troy Taormina/USA Today)


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