Kansas believes it can challenge for North title again

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- What a difference one good season can make.

Expectations are shooting through the roof this season at Kansas, where only a few years ago there were none.

"It used to make me angry," senior linebacker Joe Mortensen said. "We would get behind and people would start chanting 'There's always basketball.' We've changed that around."

But after last year's stunning 12-1 record and a victory over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, the Jayhawks are brimming with confidence about the upcoming season. Even if the Jayhawks' basketball team one-upped them by bringing home the national championship.

Amazingly, Kansas has never made bowl trips in back-to-back seasons in the 119-year history of the program. That challenge and becoming a factor for their first North Division title will be the most pressing challenges goal for this team, which returns six offensive and nine defensive starters from last year.

"I would say the kids' confidence level is very high, much higher than it could have been," Kansas coach Mark Mangino said. "And I think that the confidence factor has been a big part of the windfall of being a BCS team last season."

Mangino remembers how far down the Kansas program has come since he arrived in 2002 after a successful run as Oklahoma's offensive coordinator.

"We should be excited and embrace the high expectations we have," Mangino said. "When I came here there were none. That was a terrible feeling. When nobody expects you to be successful it's not a good feeling."

To get there, the Jayhawks will have to navigate a significantly more difficult schedule.

Kansas trades Baylor, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State from the South for a cross-division group that will include Texas Tech, Texas and Oklahoma. The Jayhawks are a combined 1-11 against those schools in the last eight seasons, allowing an average of 39.3 points in those games.

"We still feel like we're underdogs, even though we supposedly came out of last year as the top dog," wide receiver Marcus Herford said. "We had a lot of battles and talk because of our 'so-called' weak schedule. We're still considered a lower team, and we're going to continue to thrive off that."

Wide receiver/quarterback Kerry Meier said that doubt will help fuel the team this season.

"We had a great season and went 12-1, but we have to prove ourselves again," Meier said. "People around the nation are probably looking at us as the same ol' Jayhawks. We're going to have a big chip on our shoulders to prove ourselves otherwise."

Last season's transformation has excited Mortensen about the possibilities against a tougher slate -- even if most observers aren't giving the Jayhawks much hope for a repeat challenge at the North title.

"I'm excited to play the teams we're playing this year," Mortensen said. "Last year, people said we didn't play anybody, but nobody can discount that we're going against the best of the best. With teams like Oklahoma and Texas it's definitely going to be a great year. I like the challenge of playing teams like that."

Even if doubters are saying otherwise, Kansas players said last year's surprising run makes them expect something similar again.

"That's what I came here to do was to win games," Meier said. "Last year will be something that will be hard to follow, but we're up for the challenge. We want to go out and show it wasn't a fluke."

Mangino smiles when he thinks about that transformation from his arrival.

"I would say these kids confidence level is very high," Mangino said. "Last year's team became more and more confident as the year went on. This year's team showed up that way."