Kansas, UCF in futile pursuit of their first victory

This has been a season to bag it if you are a UCF or Kansas fan.

Jonathan Dyer/Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

With North Texas’ win over Texas-San Antonio and New Mexico State’s overtime victory over Idaho on Saturday, the Football Bowl Subdivision is now down to a pair of winless teams.

One, 0-8 Kansas, is a perennial loser that hasn’t had a winning season since 2008 and has 12 wins overall since the start of the 2010 campaign. But on the bright side — if there is one — the Jayhawks were supposed to be bad and, if you can believe it, are only marginally worse than expected (or perhaps as awful as advertised) in their first season under head coach David Beaty.

According to colleagues like Bob Stoops — whose Oklahoma Sooners just rolled to a 62-7 romp in Lawrence that could have easily been worse — Beaty is doing the best he can in a tough situation and has put his program in a position to improve. With 67 scholarship players currently on the roster, it’s tough to envision things getting better in the immediate future.

Meanwhile, UCF, the other FBS program currently with a goose egg in the win column, is a bit of a surprise — disappointment? — at 0-9 after winning at least a share of the American conference in each of its two seasons in the league, to say nothing of its Fiesta Bowl win over Baylor and top-10 national ranking two seasons ago.

There was some debate about how the Knights might fare in 2015, but the prevailing thought was that if they didn’t contend for a third straight conference title and a bid to a New Year’s Six bowl, their days of scrapping for bowl eligibility were behind them.

Instead, UCF rolled out the worst offense in football, and after two months watching his team try to squeeze water from a rock, George O’Leary decided he’d sooner retire than finish the season. His departure didn’t exactly galvanize the roster, however, and in the team’s first game without O’Leary since 2003, the Knights played like Skyline chili tastes in a 52-7 road loss to Cincinnati.

Now, to be fair to Kansas and UCF, being winless and being the worst are not necessarily one in the same. According to Football Outsiders’ F/+ rankings, the Jayhawks and Knights are only the third- and fourth-most-inept teams in the FBS, respectively — the aforementioned North Texas and 3-5 UTEP are actually rated lower — and, by that standard, both could be worse.

Further, if you were to hand-pick other struggling teams for them to face (Miami of Ohio, Eastern Michigan, Wyoming and Louisiana-Monroe are a few that come to mind), there might be a few wins to be had.

That being said, it’s hard to argue that being winless is somehow better than having wins. So as the regular season enters its final month, it’s worth taking a closer look at who truly is the worst of the worst, who has a better chance at picking up a "W" and who is most worthy of your sympathy support in their effort to get off the schneid.

OFFENSE:

When I said that UCF has the worst offense in football, it wasn’t an exaggeration. The Knights are ranked 127th out of 127 teams at a measly 263.8 yards — total — per game, and while that’s not quite 2014 Wake Forest bad, it’s not a whole lot better.

That’s especially true on the ground, where UCF averages an FBS-low 75.3 yards per game, a number that actually got a massive boost thanks to 212 rushing yards against Cincinnati (93 of which came in the fourth quarter, with UCF already down 52-0). Add to that a trio of bumbling quarterbacks whose collective passer rating is fourth-lowest in the country — UCF’s 18 interceptions thrown are second-worst in FBS — and there aren’t a lot of points to be had.

With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that UCF’s 14.1 points per game are also the worst in the nation. However, at 16.5 points per game, Kansas isn’t exactly lighting scoreboards on fire, either.

Offensively, Kansas ranks 114th nationally with 338 yards per outing, but the Jayhawks have at least shown a pulse with the passing attack, where 230.9 yards per game puts them 63rd in the country. Individually, senior Tre’ Parmalee — son of former NFL running back Bernie Parmalee — averages 16 yards per catch and has shown big-play ability, but with the O-line allowing almost three sacks per game, there’s not always time for the Jayhawks’ quarterbacks to find him.

Overall, you don’t especially want either of these teams to be put in a position where they have to rally.

Overall, you don’t especially want either of these teams to be put in a position where they have to rally. Unfortunately, both teams’ defenses have made a habit of putting the offense in a spot where a comeback is necessary.

DEFENSE:

However bad UCF’s offense is, Kansas’ colander of a defense might be worse.

The Jayhawks allow 581.5 yards per game, worst in FBS, and are equal opportunity offenders when it comes to giving up both the pass and run. Opponents have been gashing KU for 247 yards per game on the ground, and only Texas State and Rice have allowed a higher opponent passing efficiency this season.

The only saving grace for the Kansas D (aside from Fish Smithson’s awesome name) is its propensity for generating turnovers — perhaps the only thing keeping its overall numbers from looking worse. Through eight games, the Jayhawks have 13 takeaways, and their turnover margin of -0.13 per game is good for 77th nationally. (We using the term "good for" loosely here.)

But before the Kansas fans reading this start getting angry, let’s also point out that UCF’s defense is far from impenetrable, either. The Knights aren’t giving up 47.1 points per game like the Jayhawks, but 35.4 points allowed per game isn’t something to brag about, and UCF’s 451.9 yards per game allowed still puts it in the bottom 20 percent in FBS.

It also doesn’t help that UCF’s 24 turnovers mean the defense is on the field a lot, but with nine takeaways of its own, the D isn’t doing its part to get the ball back. And with two interceptions, the secondary, which does not feature a single returning starter from last season, is basically daring quarterbacks to test it — tests the Knights fail almost without exception, despite the best efforts of occasionally effective DB Shaquill Griffin.

Additionally, both teams are atrocious on third and fourth down — Kansas allows conversions on 48.1 percent of third downs and 85.7 percent of fourth downs; UCF checks in at 45 percent and 60 percent, respectively — and UCF allows a score on 87.2 percent of opponent red zone trips. Statistically, Kansas has an above average red zone D, making a stop 21.1 percent of the time, but the Jayhawks also lead the nation by a wide margin with 57 opponent trips inside the 20, so you decide if that’s really all that great.

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THE GOOD NEWS:

I know what you’re saying: "OK, OK, OK, both teams are terrible. I get it. Is there anything positive to say about either?" Sadly, the answer to that isn’t a hard yes, but there have been a few bright spots for both teams if you look hard enough.

For UCF, it’s at least encouraging that it has shown, on occasion, the ability to hang with teams — even good teams! — for a half. And given the team’s utter lack of experience on both sides of the ball, one would hope that it’ll be able to close those games out in the future as inexperienced players mature and develop.

In the season opener, UCF led FIU 14-3 after two quarters before putting up zeros in the third and fourth and coming up a point short thanks to a blocked field- goal try with 25 seconds left to play. Against Stanford, arguably one of the best teams in the country, the Knights never led, but held their own for the better part of three quarters before the Cardinal ran away with it late.

UCF led going into the fourth quarter in a one-point loss FCS foe Furman — of course, that’s not exactly something to brag about — before turnovers on its last two offensive possessions doomed the comeback. The Knights also led South Carolina at the half in Columbia and was up on Temple after three quarters in Philadelphia before bungling each opportunity for a road upset.

That doesn’t do much to explain some of the other wire-to-wire blowouts — although UCF did score first against Tulane and Connecticut and somehow led Houston early in the second quarter — but it illustrates that the Knights aren’t necessarily as bad as their record. If they knew how to close games, they might be 1-8, 2-7 or even 3-6 right now, which isn’t great, but it’s something.

As for Kansas, the Jayhawks also have a couple of games they probably wish they could call do-over on, particularly the season-opening loss to FCS South Dakota State. From the outset this season, it was one of the few games prognosticators believed Kansas might win, and from the midway point of the second quarter on (after falling behind 31-7), KU looked like the better team.

The same could also be said for the second half of a surprisingly low-scoring loss to Texas Tech in a matchup of two of the country’s worst defenses. In the fourth quarter of that one, Kansas had the ball trailing by just three with less than five minutes to play, but instead of a game-winning drive, quarterback Ryan Willis handed the Red Raiders a game-sealing pick-six.

There have also been flashes from a few individuals on the Kansas roster. Smithson, mentioned earlier, has proven to be a capable tackler at safety and junior tailback Ke’aun Kinner was brilliant at times early this season. Kinner was slowed some midway through the season by minor injuries and has been nearly absent from Beaty’s game plan the last couple of weeks, but he and the freshman Willis could be a nice offensive foundation for the Jayhawks to build on next year.

A win for KU would be particularly surprising given the challenging Big XII slate ahead.

THE ROAD AHEAD:

Here’s what you really want to know: Will either of these teams win a game this season? Unfortunately, I wouldn’t bet the farm on either Kansas or UCF doing so.

A win for KU would be particularly surprising given the challenging Big XII slate ahead. The Jayhawks already got their pants handed to them by Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, and Texas is up next. At 3-5, the Longhorns might look like a team ripe for an upset, but UT has taken Cal, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma to the wire this season. And after a shutout loss to Iowa State this past weekend, a second straight Texas meltdown seems unlikely — and that’s what Kansas would need to win.

After Texas, Kansas pays a visit to TCU, who could probably hang 100 on the Jayhawks if it feels like it, and then returns home to close the season against West Virginia and Kansas State.

Kansas snapped a 27-game Big XII losing streak at home against the Mountaineers in 2013, so history is on the Jayhawks’ side there, but WVU, currently mired in a brutal stretch of conference play, will still be a heavy favorite to win and will likely appreciate the breather. Kansas State, meanwhile, hasn’t beaten anyone of consequence this season, but the Wildcats have also won six straight against their in-state rival and will likely make it seven in KU’s season finale.

UCF, on the other hand, doesn’t have any sure wins on the schedule, but the Knights’ three remaining games seem much more winnable than Kansas’, so stealing one of them isn’t totally out of the question.

This weekend, the search for win No. 1 takes the Knights to Tulsa, where they’ll face a Golden Hurricane team that has already struggled to put away bottom-feeders FAU, Louisiana-Monroe and SMU this season. Tulsa allows 532.5 yards and 38.3 points per game, so there will be opportunities for UCF’s offense to score, but even if it can — which isn’t necessarily a given — the onus will still fall on the defense to make enough stops to win the game.

From there, UCF returns home for its final two games of the season, each Thursday night prime-time games. The first is against an East Carolina team that’s probably better than its 4-5 record and the second is against USF. As will be the case with Kansas-Kansas State, you can never be sure what might happen in a rivalry game at home, and USF — coming off a four-game gauntlet featuring Navy, East Carolina, Temple and Cincinnati — might be UCF’s best shot at a win, even if it’s not a great one.

WHO DO I ROOT FOR?

Unless you’re a fan who actively roots against Kansas or UCF football to begin with — and do those people really exist? — you might as well cheer on both of them, since no one really wants to see a team go winless.

Plus, history suggests that someone will get a win, anyway. It’s hard to lose every game, and even harder for two teams to do it in the same season. In 2013, Miami of Ohio and Georgia State both went winless in GSU’s first season in FBS, but before that, you’d have to go back to 2009, when Eastern Michigan and Western Kentucky both failed to win a game, to find a pair of 0-12 teams.

UCF has been there before, going 0-11 in O’Leary’s first season, while Kansas, for all its recent woes, hasn’t gone 0-fer in more than 60 years. The problem for KU is that this season feels a lot like 2012’s 1-11 campaign, except in 2012, the Jayhawks actually beat South Dakota State to start the year. Kansas hung with ranked Texas and Texas Tech teams late in that season, but while they might put up a fight against the Longhorns or Kansas State down the stretch this time, a win in either would be a shock.

By contrast, a UCF win as a massive underdog in one of its final three games would register closer to a surprise than a shock. (And on this scale, that’s a good thing.) So if you’re looking to adopt a winless team that might actually win, side with the Knights, if only because their remaining schedule is weaker. If you think, instead, that Kansas deserves it more because they’ve suffered harder for longer — or if you live in Orlando and just want to keep drinking free beer downtown — go with the Jayhawks.

And if you’re already a fan of one of them? I’m so sorry, and better luck next year.

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.