LAWRENCE, Kan. — Duke and Kansas are accustomed to these high-stakes showdowns, the kind that build national buzz whenever they meet or grab attention because national championship implications are riding on the outcome.
Wait, it’s football season?
OK, so maybe few people are accustomed to the kind of matchup Saturday between the Blue Devils and Jayhawks. Both of the well-known “basketball schools” have soared to 3-0 starts, building the type of anticipation for game day in Lawrence that hasn’t existed since Mark Mangino led Kansas to its last winning season in 2008.
“We’re playing a good football team that’s well-coached,” second-year Jayhawks coach Lance Leipold said Tuesday, “and they’re playing with a lot of confidence. And again, they haven’t lost a game. It’s a team that, though a new coaching staff, a lot of those same players got after us last year at their place.”
Ah, last year. That was more the norm. The Blue Devils rolled 52-33 in a game between teams that combined to win four other games. It was witnessed in person by 19,128 fans — and probably not many more on television — or 684 fewer than saw Duke play Kansas the last time they met on the hardwood.
That game at Madison Square Garden, by the way, was one of 13 matchups between basketball powers that boast a combined nine national championships (including the one by Kansas in April). Six of their games have been played in the NCAA Tournament, two in national semifinals and one crowned the Blue Devils the 1991 champions.
But back to football.
In the case of the Blue Devils, their woebegone 2021 season was enough to end the tenure of David Cutcliffe, who did well to take them to six bowl games over 15 seasons but combined to win 10 games over the last three seasons.
Also, more the norm for a program that hasn’t won an outright conference title in 60 years.
There was talent on the roster, though, and coach Mike Elko has been squeezing the most out of it. The longtime defensive coordinator has led the Blue Devils to a shutout of Temple, a road win over Northwestern and a rout of North Carolina A&T, beating them by a combined 110-43 and raising hopes — already — of qualifying for a bowl game once again.
“I told them this today, and I truly mean this: There are no big games, there’s just the next game,” Elko said this week. “Trust in your preparation, trust in what you do, trust in the work that you put in. You prepare the right way and you go out and you execute. That’s football. I think that mindset is the mindset that we want our program to have.”
Sounds like the mindset Leipold has instilled in Kansas.
If Elko was given a pile of bricks and told to rebuild, the longtime small-college coach inherited a sack of dust. Kansas was coming off a winless season and the unceremonious dismissal of Les Miles, wallowing along with low scholarship numbers and woeful talent. Leipold didn’t even have the benefit of spring football before his first season.
Yet the progress he made was evident week-to-week last season, and it culminated with a road win over Texas.
After Leipold’s first real recruiting cycle and offseason, the progress has continued right into this season, where the Jayhawks pounded Tennessee Tech and picked up quality road wins over West Virginia and Houston.
“Kansas is as good as advertised,” Cougars coach Dana Holgorsen said after last week’s 48-30 loss. “I got out-coached — (Leipold) is a heck of a football coach — and we got out-coached offensively and defensively.”
The Jayhawks’ stunning start, which has even produced an unlikely All-American candidate in quarterback Jalon Daniels, has caught so many by surprise that their football Twitter account on Tuesday introduced fans to its stadium, traditions and chants: “We say Rock Chalk A LOT. It can pretty much mean whatever you want it to mean.”
These days, it means success.
It all points to a game Saturday between two long-suffering programs on the rise. Duke is chasing its first 4-0 start since 2018, when New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones was under center and the Blue Devils last had a winning record. The Jayhawks seek their first since 2009 — the year Mangino was fired amid allegations of player mistreatment.
“We treat every game like, ‘Who’s next?’” Duke wide receiver Jordan Moore said. “I don’t think our confidence has changed; it’s just our next opponent. Kansas is a good team and we’re a good team. We look forward to every one the same. We only get 12 of these guaranteed, and every one is as precious as the next. So we’re treating this like any other game.”