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IT'S TIME TO reevaluate Kansas. Before upsetting No. 24 Kansas State 30--24 last Saturday, the Jayhawks had been victims of their own horrible history. If any of the Big 12's marquee programs had jumped to a 4--0 start even the way they did—outscoring a collection of nonconference patsies by a combined 214--23—a Top 25 ranking would have been a given. Not so for Kansas, which has had just one winning season in the last 11 years and has finished with more than six victories only four times since 1975. "I keep telling the guys, 'We've got to prove ourselves every week,'" says coach Mark Mangino. "The rankings and the respect will come."
Will they ever. With the road win, Kansas cracked the AP poll for the first time since 1996, at No. 20, and improved to 5--0 for the second time in 39 years. The Jayhawks have not only blown out the teams that they were supposed to blow out—Central Michigan, Southeastern Louisiana, Toledo and Florida International—but also beaten a fellow up-and-comer in the Wildcats, who were fresh off a 41--21 pounding of then No. 7 Texas in Austin. In a wide-open Big 12 North, Kansas is suddenly a bona fide contender.
Key to KU's resurgence has been the play of sophomore quarterback Todd Reesing. Generously listed at 5'11", the first-year starter has already thrown for 1,466 yards and 14 touchdowns—better numbers than any Kansas passer has put up for an entire season in the last three years. More important, he has shown the ability to remain calm under pressure while igniting the offense. (It's not for nothing that Mangino calls him Sparky.) Against K-State, Reesing overcame an ugly first quarter (3-of-9 passing, 13 yards, one interception). After the Jayhawks fell behind 24--21 midway through the fourth quarter, he capped a four-play, 62-yard touchdown drive with a 30-yard strike to wideout Dexton Fields. "It took me awhile to get used to the noise and the wind," says Reesing, who threw for 267 yards and three touchdowns. "But by the end I had no doubts. We were all so confident."
Defense has been a staple during Mangino's five seasons, in part because that's where he put his best athletes early on in order to be competitive. Now, with playmakers on both sides of the ball, the Jayhawks rank third in Division I-A in total defense and fifth in total offense. "I thought clearly that this was the best team we have played," said Wildcats coach Ron Prince, whose club lost to Auburn on Sept. 1. "This team had no weaknesses."
Can Reesing and the Jayhawks keep this up? It will be difficult, with games still to come at Colorado and at Texas A&M and a meeting with No. 11 Missouri in Kansas City, Mo. But failure is no longer expected, and that might be the biggest victory of the season for Kansas.
ONLY AT SI.COM News and analysis from Stewart Mandel.