9:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Kansas -11.0, Over/Under: 64.5
With Christmas now in the rearview mirror, the bowl season continues to rage on as the Kansas Jayhawks cross paths with the UNLV Rebels in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl from Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona. It can be hard for some football programs to earn respect on a national level when they have a long earned the moniker of being a basketball school, but that hasn’t stopped Kansas (8-4, 5-4 in BIG XII) from trying to close the proverbial gap in Lawrence. Indeed, there have been blips in the past, including 1995 team that won ten games for only the second time in school history followed twelve years later by the 2007 version that won a dozen games. In both cases, the Jayhawks eventually reverted back to mediocre levels, following the former campaign with just twenty-five wins over the ensuing six years, while plummeting to a dozen consecutive losing seasons two years after the latter run. Well, (Head Coach) Lance Leipold is reading any of those history books. In fact, we wouldn’t be surprised if the 59-year-old didn’t burn said books in a display intended to motivate his team. This guy knows how to build a program, folks, which is something his did with aplomb at Buffalo. Taking over a program that went 22-38 in the previous five seasons, Leipold slowly rebuilt it from the ground up; following a 13-23 run through his first three years in Western New York, the former Wisconsin-Whitewater man led the Bulls to a 10-4 finish in 2018, followed by an 8-5 campaign in 2019, and a 6-1 run during the COVID-shortened 2020 season, with three consecutive bowls to his credit, including a win in the 2020 Camellia Bowl (17-10 over Marshall). After inheriting a winless side from that same Fall, Leipold enjoyed a similar trajectory at Kansas, winning two games in his first season, followed by six in his second, and now eight in the third. Armed with one of the most experienced offenses in the country (10 returning starters), the Jayhawks averaged 33.6 points (29th in FBS) on 434.0 total yards despite losing the services of talented Junior Quarterback, Jalon Daniels, who once again missed a large portion of the campaign due to injury. This time, an ailing back sidelined him for all but three games this Fall, though his team has been fortunate to have a capable backup behind him, as (fellow Junior) Jason Bean has performed well in his stead. A former transfer from North Texas, Bean (pictured below) arrived in Lawrence alongside Leipold, where he has been a frequent safety valve at QB. Last year, he featured in all twelve games, completing 64.0% of his passes for 1,280 yards on 9.4 yards per attempt with fourteen touchdowns opposed to just four interceptions, while rushing for another four scores and 222 yards on thirty-eight carries. This year, he has been just as solid, connecting on 61.4% of his throws for 1,681 yards on 9.8 yards per attempt, with a dozen scores in comparison to four interceptions, while rushing for 259 yards and three more touchdowns to boot. With all that being said, where this team has made the biggest leap has been on the opposite side of the football, where Kansas struggled mightily a year ago. Granted, playing defense in a conference long associated with wide-open attacks can be touch, particularly if you don’t have the recruiting power of a Texas or Oklahoma. However, Leipold and (Defensive Coordinator) Brian Borland have done a stellar job of further developing this unit, which possesses seven starters from the previous campaign in which they yielded 35.5 points per game on 469.0 total yards, including 260.0 versus the pass and 209 against the run. This season, they have held opponents to a much more respectable 25.8 points (63rd in FBS) on 377.6 total yards, including 210.5 against the pass and 167.1 versus the run. Furthermore, their turnover differential (+2) and sack total (25.0) are nearly identical to that of 2022. When we last saw Kansas, they snapped a 2-game losing streak with a 49-16 thumping of Cincinnati on the road. The Jayhawks led 14-10 just before halftime, only to sneak another score, a 26-yard strike from Bean to (Junior Tight End) Mason Fairchild to make it an 11-point advantage at intermission. Leipold’s charges began the second half on a similar note, as (Junior Tailback) Devin Neal broke free for a 30-yard touchdown run, and after a return strike from the Bearcats at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the visitors ended the affair on a 21-0 run. Bean played a HUGE role during this particular stretch running for touchdowns of FORTY-THREE and FIFTY yards, bringing his total to ninety on the night. In the end, the bluebirds outgained the hosts 562-342, rushing for 312 yards, their second-highest total of the campaign. Neal needed just ten carries to pick up 106 yards, while (Senior Tailback) Dylan McDuffie added another score along with forty-seven yards on eight attempts. Bean only threw seventeen passes, completing all but three for 250 yards and two touchdowns, one to Fairchild and the other to (fellow Tight End) Jared Casey.
From a betting perspective, Kansas may be 8-4 straight-up this season, but they have been almost as rewarding against the spread, posting a 7-5 record this Fall. The Jayhawks alternated non-covers and covers through the first eight contests, before finding a little consistency covering three of their final four outings, including each of the last two games punctuated by that romp at Cincinnati (-7.5) in the finale. Interestingly, this postseason affair with the Rebels marks the fifth time in which Leipold’s troops have been favored by double-digits (the most during his tenure in Lawrence), though it is the first time that they have been such favorites since the end of September (1-3 ATS). In fact, this is a school that is just 1-6 against the spread in their last seven games as a favorite of at least 10.5 points. Under the direction of the former Buffalo skipper, these birds are a middling 18-18-1 against the spread since he was hired back in 2021, including 5-6 in non-conference matchups, while pushing their lone appearance in a bowl. Of course, last Winter’s 53-55 affair against Arkansas (+2) in the Liberty Bowl was truly an entertaining watch; the two sides combined for 1,286 total yards and SIXTY first downs with the tilt needing THREE overtimes to crown a victor. Kanas trailed 7-31 after a disastrous first quarter, though would score TWENTY-FIVE of the next thirty-two points to push the game to an extra period, where the first two would end in a stalemate. The Razorbacks would breach the end zone and convert the ensuing 2-point attempt, turning possession over to the BIG XII denizens, though Leipold & Co finally ran out of gas. The star of this game was the aforementioned Daniels, who completed 37-of-55 passes for 544 yards, FIVE touchdowns and a pair of interceptions, while rushing for another score to boot. (Junior Wideout) Luke Grimm hauled in ten passes for 167 yards and a score, while the appropriately named Lawrence Arnold added eight receptions for 119 yards to boot. As for Fairchild, he also got into the mix with six catches, eighty yards and a score of his own. All-time, the Jayhawks are 6-7 in these bowl games, with last year’s shootout marking their first postseason appearance since 2008. On the injury front, Daniels is expected to miss this one with a lingering back issue that has kept him sidelined since that victory over BYU back in September, which means that the aforementioned Bean will continue to perform in his place. Looking ahead, a win tonight would give Kansas its most wins since that magical Orange Bowl run under (former HC) Mark Mangino sixteen years ago, in which they earned a school-record twelve victories and finished the campaign ranked seventh in the final AP Poll.
Meanwhile, UNLV (9-4, 6-3 in MWC) can empathize with the plight of their opponent tonight, given that this is a school that is mostly associated with the success of its basketball program during the late 80s and early 90s. However, the city of Las Vegas has slowly become a sporting destination, and why shouldn’t the Rebels, who reside just a few miles from the famous Strip itself, not get in on the party? In order to do that, (Athletic Director) Erick Harper made the difficult decision to part ways with (former Head Coach) Marcus Arroyo after just three years on the job (7-23). Replacing him was Barry Odom, who spent the last three seasons as Arkansas’ Defensive Coordinator. Of course, Odom (pictured below) spent the majority of his coaching career at Missouri, where he served as Head Coach from 2016 to 2019, posting a middling 25-25 record along the way. Make no mistake about it, folks, The 47-year-old took on quite the job in rebuilding this football program that has very little history to speak of; with just ONE 10-win season in their forty-six years of existence, the Rebels are a veritable blank canvas for a coach to paint upon, which was likely part of the allure of the job. However, UNLV hasn’t competed in the postseason in a decade, going 29-74 during that span (.281), with three different head coaches trying their best to turn things around. With all that being said, Odom has brought an attitude and personality to Las Vegas, in turn building a culture of that has helped propel the team to NINE wins, their most in thirty-nine years. The biggest leap between last year’s Rebels and this current incarnation has been on the offensive side of the football, where they have become one of the Mountain West’s more lethal passing attacks. (Sophomore Quarterback) Doug Brumfield was by far and away their most effective passer last Fall, but his starting job was not guaranteed with the transition to Odom and (Offensive Coordinator) Brennan Marion, who ultimately favored (Redshirt Freshman) Jayden Maiava, who promptly took over after the second game of the season. Maiava has completed 62.9% of his throws for 2,794 yards on 8.8 yards per attempt with fourteen touchdowns opposed to eight interceptions, pushing the ball downfield whereas Brumfield was far more hesitant in doing so. Of course, who wouldn’t want to play pitch and catch with (Junior Wideout) Ricky White, who emerged as the most prolific Receiver in the MWC? After posting fifty-one receptions for 619 yards and four touchdowns in his first season after transferring from Michigan State, White emerged as a star with eighty-one catches for 1,386 yards and seven scores, logging a healthy 17.1 yards per reception. Prior to their loss to Boise State in the season finale, he was on quite the tear, averaging 148.2 yards with five touchdowns during a 5-game stretch. Speaking of that loss to the Broncos, Odom’s troops were manhandled in the MWC Championship Game, a 20-44 affair that quickly spiraled out of control after an encouraging start. The two sides traded touchdowns through the first quarter, with the Rebels tying the score at 14-14 following a 47-yard interception return to the house courtesy of (Senior Linebacker) Fred Thompkins. However, Boise would run off seventeen unanswered points, including touchdowns of seventy and fifty-seven yards en route to a blowout victory. In the end, UNLV was outgained by a wide margin (298-527) and outrushed 81-301, with three turnovers, including two interceptions tossed by Maiava contributing to the defeat. The underclassman completed 15-of-29 passes for just 166 yards, eventually giving way to Brumfield, who didn’t inspire much confidence with fifty-one yards on 3-of-9 passing. (Senior Tailback) Vincent Davis rushed for fifty-five yards and a touchdown on fourteen carries, while White may have been kept out of the end zone, though nonetheless reeled in six receptions for eighty-six yards.
From a betting perspective, UNLV enters this postseason affair at 9-4 straight-up, but they have been one of the most rewarding teams against the spread this Fall, posting a stellar 10-3 record in that regard. Though they definitely tripped up down the stretch, few teams were hotter than these Rebels earlier in the campaign, covering an insane TEN of their first eleven contests. Needless to say, these kids made a lot of people out there in Las Vegas A LOT of money over the past few months. Tonight’s matchup with the Jayhawks marks the third time this season in which they have been an underdog of 10+ points, covering each of the previous two tilts: the first a 7-35 loss at (No. 2) Michigan (+37.5), with the other being a 24-31 defeat at Fresno State (+10). Over the course of his coaching career, Odom is 33-30 against the spread, including 12-9 in non-conference games. Getting back to being a dog, this is a team is a strong 8-1 against the spread in their past nine outings when receiving points from the oddsmakers, while covering four straight contests as an underdog of ten or more points. Furthermore, they have also developed a habit of bouncing back from bad losses, posting a 3-0-1 mark versus the spread in their last four following a double-digit loss at home, while covering eight of their last nine outings after shipping over 450 total yards, with both trends being the case tonight. UNLV finds themselves in their first bowl since 2013, when were thumped by North Texas (+6) in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. All-time, this is a program that has appeared in just FOUR bowl games, though they do own a 3-1 record in those postseason affairs. On the injury front, these Rebels are as healthy as ever, which means they should have a full complement of weapons in their pursuit of that elusive 10-win campaign. Looking ahead, it will be interesting to see how Odom builds off of the success of his first season in Sin City. He should have twelve starters returning from this group, with seven of that number being seniors, including White, who has yet to announce any intention of turning pro.