Which is why I’m glad Jayhawk Conference football has implemented more change to rosters. The 55-man rosters now feature 63 players, and the maximum number of out-of-state players has gone from 12 to 20.
The hope is that increasing the number of out-of-state players will level the playing field. The last three years have been a case of Butler and Hutchinson dominating the rest of the field. And Butler, of course, has dominated the conference since 1998, winning a regular-season title 13 times and postseason championship 12 times.
Will this change allow the likes of Dodge City, Highland and Independence to compete annually? Will the conference get to the point where, like in men’s basketball, it’s not stunning to see the seventh-place team beat the conference leader?
Probably not this year. While we probably won’t see Hutchinson win games by scores of 90-7 (vs. Highland, 2011) or 75-0 (vs. Independence, 2012), the usual suspects will be at the top of the standings. I don’t see any way, barring unforeseen circumstances, that Butler, Hutchinson and Coffeyville fail to make the playoffs. The final spot appears to be headed Garden City’s way, but Fort Scott and possibly Highland could have something to say about that.
Now, on to my fearless predictions for the Jayhawk Conference:
1. Butler. While the Grizzlies return little and will rely on a mass of freshmen, picking against coach Troy Morrell is like picking against Kansas basketball coach Bill Self. Sure, Hutchinson or Coffeyville might look better in the preseason media guides, just like Oklahoma State might appear better than Self’s Jayhawks come October. The only reason I’m picking Butler first? Because no coach in this conference has beaten Troy Morrell before. Incidentally, the two biggest threats to Butler’s supremacy – Hutchinson and Coffeyville – have never beaten Morrell since he took over prior to the 2000 season.
2. Hutchinson. Luke Barnes will likely go down as the greatest quarterback in school history. An intelligent passer with good feet and reliable eyes, Barnes is the biggest reason Hutchinson is ranked No. 6 by the NJCAA. The secondary looks great, and the offensive and defensive lines are getting rave reviews. The only question mark surrounds the skill positions outside quarterback. Will the receivers and Barnes jell immediately? Is there a 1,000-yard running back?
3. Coffeyville. While the Red Ravens finished third last year, they were just as far from beating second-place Hutchinson as they were to finishing out of the top four. Remember, the Red Ravens only beat Highland 7-3 at home last year. But coach Aaron Flores is genuinely optimistic about his team. The Ravens are bigger and faster than last year. Is it enough to surpass Hutchinson? We’ll find out Saturday night in Coffeyville.
4. Highland. I like second-year coach Ryan Held, a former Butler assistant. Other than being slapped around by Hutchinson and Butler, Highland had one of its most competitive teams in years. They lost 7-3 to Coffeyville, 31-24 to Independence, 20-7 to Fort Scott, and 28-17 to Garden City. Beat Garden City and Coffeyville, and Highland would have been playoff-bound. Highland has never reached the semifinal round, and if Held can do – whether it’s this year or in 10 years – they should rename the town “Heldville”.
5. Garden City. The Broncbusters had a dynamic offense last year, which included stud quarterback Nick Marshall, who was the conference offensive player of the year. But the loss of Marshall, WR Rodriguez Coleman and RB Jamal Tyler are big. Yes, it helps having one of the nation’s fastest human beings in Tyreek Hill back, but that’s a lot of offense to replace. Plus, the defense wasn’t good last year, giving up 49 points to Independence, 63 to Hutchinson, 84 and 58 to Butler and 54 to Coffeyville. The defense will need to improve immensely if the Busters hope to take first-year coach Matt Miller to the playoffs.
6. Fort Scott. Coach Curtis Horton has done well to keep the Greyhounds afloat during their three-year probation, which ends after this seasons. And they’ll continue to be a tough out. The offense is more run-oriented that other teams, and if works, the Greyhounds will frustrate opponents. But the passing game will have to be there when the Greyhounds fall behind. The top-tier teams can score almost on command. I’m not sure Fort Scott can.
7. Independence. It’s been a wild ride in coach Steve Carson’s first three seasons. From leading Hutchinson 17-7 in the 2010 Region 6 semifinals (Hutch won 24-17) to a 0-9 2011 season, then to a respectable 4-5 season in 2012, the Pirates have a good start to this season with three returning offensive linemen. But to run this triple-option attack, a quarterback has to be smart and run it with confidence. Independence should be competitive, but the Pirates need to start playing better against the league’s top teams.
8. Dodge City. New coach Gary Thomas did a solid job at DuPage, Ill., and he brought some of the better players from last year’s bowl team with him. Dodge City seemed poised for a break-through in 2011 when it reached the Region 6 semifinals, but went 0-9 last year. Thomas has a tough job ahead, but the college is putting some resources into improving football. Thomas seems to be the right fit for this rebuilding program, but even in junior college, a rebuilding project can take a year or so.