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Kansas' South schedule could be its biggest liability

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

No team in the Big 12 has sparked a greater disparity of opinions coming into the season than Kansas.

My colleague Mark Schlabach has pegged them as his No. 22 team in the country in his preseason poll.

Other preseason polls haven't been as kind, picking the Jayhawks to finish as low as fourth in the Big 12 North.

The Jayhawks have the most explosive offense in the North with the return of key players like quarterback Todd Reesing, tailback Jake Sharp, wide receivers Dezmon Briscoe and Johnathan Wilson and versatile wide receiver/quarterback Kerry Meier. They also return three starters along the defensive line and all four starters in the secondary.

The biggest personnel liability that most observers discount for the Jayhawks are their linebackers and offensive line. The Jayhawks lose productive starters like James Holt, Mike Rivera and Joe Mortensen at linebacker from last season. And they are looking for two new starting guards as coach Mark Mangino attempts to break in redshirt freshman Tanner Hawkinson at left tackle to protect Reesing's blind side.

But as much as personnel might worry those predictors, I still think the biggest concern that most have is the Jayhawks' brutally tough schedule of cross-division games -- they face all three of the defending South Division tri-champions.

They will host Oklahoma on Oct. 24, travel to Texas Tech on Oct. 31 and visit Texas on Nov. 21.

At the same time, Nebraska will host Texas Tech on Oct. 17 and Oklahoma on Nov. 7, around a road game at Baylor on Oct. 31.

It's clear that even though Nebraska must travel to Kansas on Nov. 14, the Cornhuskers have the more favorable schedule.

Mangino realizes that the schedule remains the biggest question, particularly after three resounding losses to those South opponents by a combined margin of 143-59 last season.

"Hey, let's face it. We've won some games against the South teams. But we've got to do better," Mangino said. "We've got to beat some more South Division teams. And until we do that, that kind of talk will persist.

"It's true and it's a fact of life. I don't hide from it and our program doesn't hide from it. The fact is until you start beating those South Division teams, you're going to have that kind of talk."

It may mean the best team in the North doesn't win the division title because of the disparity in conference schedules.

Mangino has done a masterful job of building Kansas during his coaching tenure. The Jayhawks qualified for a bowl game in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history the past two seasons. And they could be poised for even more this season as more preseason hype surrounds the program.

But Mangino realizes that developing the program is far from over.

"We're still a work in progress," Mangino said. "I don't want to belabor that point. But just by the nature of the conference we play in, we are always in construction."

Particularly when he's facing a "murderer's row" of South Division opponents like this season.