Editor’s note: First in a series previewing each team in the Big 12.

Any discussion of Big 12 football almost always includes the well-worn question: Is Texas back?

On the other end of the standings, the question is whether the Kansas Jayhawks have finally played their way out of the cellar.

Football will never be the sport of choice in basketball-crazy Lawrence, but the times, they seem to be changing. Coach Lance Leipold got the program moving in the right direction last year, and more of the same is expected in 2023 — without the late-season collapse.

Between the 2010 and 2021 seasons, Kansas averaged just 1.9 wins per year. That all changed in 2022, however, as the Jayhawks got off to a 5-0 start in Leipold’s second season after coming over from a successful run at Buffalo.

Forget that the Jayhawks lost seven of their last eight games, beating only No. 18 Oklahoma State 37-16 in Lawrence in the stretch. They gave Arkansas all it wanted in the Liberty Bowl before finally succumbing, 55-53, in triple overtime.

Think Big 12 football has been unpredictable? Wait until this year, as 2023 promises to be wacky and wild
Will BYU football be more like Utah or Rutgers when it jumps to the Power Five level?

Leopold clearly has KU on the rise, and with some fresh meat on the schedule in the form of Big 12 newcomers BYU, UCF and Cincinnati, hopes are as high as they’ve been in 15 years for a true breakout season.

Speaking of BYU, Kansas’ first conference game is Sept. 23 against the visiting Cougars, and folks around the program are saying it might be the make-or-break game of the season for the Jayhawks. UCF visits on Oct. 7, while a matchup at Cincinnati on Nov. 25 completes the regular-season schedule.

Will Kansas be playing the following week in Arlington, Texas, in the Big 12 championship game? It is not out of the realm of possibility, especially if the defense can catch up to what should be one of the most explosive offenses in the Big 12, if not the country.

Rival Kansas State showed last year that anything is possible, especially if Texas and Oklahoma have down years in the final seasons in the conference.

The biggest reason for the optimism over the offense is the return of blossoming superstar quarterback Jalon Daniels, whose midseason injury last year was fingered as one of the reasons why the season fell apart. Daniels, a junior from Lawndale, California, threw for 2,014 yards and 18 touchdowns when he was healthy, with just four interceptions.

Folks around the country have noticed Daniels’ considerable skills and Kansas’ rise; the Jayhawks’ Week 2 game against Illinois was moved from Sept. 9 to Sept. 8 and will be televised nationally by ESPN2.

Certainly, it is a chance for Daniels and weapons such as running back Devin Neal to show what all the excitement is about.

Neal had 180 carries for 1,090 yards and nine touchdowns in 2022, and his 6.1 yards per carry average ranked 37th in the country.

At receiver, Lawrence Arnold and Quentin Skinner have all-conference potential. Tight end Mason Fairchild is another threat.

Almost every offensive contributor from 2022 returns, and 10 of 11 offensive starters (when the Jayhawks were healthy) return. 

Obviously, all the questions are on the defensive side of the ball — KU gave up 35.5 points per game and 6.2 yards per play last year.

A lot of defensive starters in the secondary and linebackers corps are back, most notably all-conference safety Kenny Logan Jr., the club’s leading tackler last year. 

The defensive line will include a bunch of new faces, as KU hit the transfer portal hard, bringing in Devin Phillips from Colorado State and Gage Keys from Minnesota.

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Combine it all, and Kansas’ infamous streak of not having a winning season since 2008 appears in jeopardy. Interest in the Sunflower State should remain high — at least until basketball season starts.

Kansas Jayhawks football preview

2022 record: 6-7 (3-6 Big 12).

Utah ties: TE Tevita Noa (Highland High, Snow College).

2023 schedule

Aug. 31 — Missouri State.
Sept. 8 — Illinois.
Sept. 16 — at Nevada.
Sept. 23 — BYU.
Sept. 30 — at Texas.
Oct. 7 — UCF.
Oct. 14 — at Oklahoma State.
Oct. 28 — Oklahoma.
Nov. 4 — at Iowa State.
Nov. 11 — Texas Tech.
Nov. 18 — Kansas State.
Nov. 25 — at Cincinnati.

Kansas head coach Lance Leipold watches from the sideline during game against Houston, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, in Houston. The former Buffalo coach has the Jayhawks trending in the right direction. | Eric Christian Smith, Associated Press
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