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1. Creating a disturbance
"How many years can this go on?" [Oklahoma president David Boren] asked rhetorically after a regents meeting, before suggesting that the conference had become "debilitating." And just to show he wasn’t merely speaking off the cuff, Boren later the same evening issued a statement to Oklahoma's student newspaper, adding the Big 12 had become "psychologically disadvantaged" because of its smaller size, relative to the other conferences. [...]
But in his soliloquy, Boren conveniently omitted the other preeminent reason for why the Big 12 has become, as he put it, so psychologically disadvantaged.
Sure, the exits of Missouri and Colorado and Nebraska and Texas A&M have played a major part.
But so too have the declines of Oklahoma and Texas.
If you add up each year's F/+ ratings for Oklahoma, Texas, and Baylor going back to 2005, you get an average rating of plus-28.6 percent per team per year. That's pretty good -- on average, it would get you ranked about 20th. And it's even more impressive considering how much Baylor stunk before Art Briles got to town. There have been combined highs (a plus-45.7 percent average in 2008) and lows (plus-15.5 percent in 2010), but in seven of 10 years, the average rating has been within about nine percentage points of 28.6.
Granted, geography plays less of a role in conferences than it used to, but it still exists. You are usually fighting conference mates for recruits within your region -- the Deep South in the SEC, California in Pac-12, Texas in the Big 12. Maybe a conference adds a geographically removed team (West Virginia in the Big 12, for instance), or maybe a new coach tries to open up new recruiting inroads (Mark Stoops heavily hitting Ohio at Kentucky). But usually your conference's average performance stays roughly the same because if one team is improving its level of talent, it comes at the expense of someone else within the conference.
Let's put that another way: Baylor's rapid rise from bad (average F/+ rating from 2005-10: minus-9.7) to good (plus-25.9 in 2011-12) to excellent (plus-44.5 in 2013-14) has come with a cost.
From 2005-10, the average score of a Baylor game against either OU or Texas was Opponent 44, Bears 18. From 2011-14, the average score has been BU 41, Opponent 27. That's a swing of six touchdowns per game. After going 1-11 against these two teams from 2005-10, Baylor has since gone 6-2.
The Big 12 as a whole has slid recently. The conference's average F/+ rating was plus-15.3 percent from 2005-12 and was just plus-11.3 percent over the last two seasons. And there have been factors beyond slides from Oklahoma and Texas. Conference departees Texas A&M and Missouri have had an average rating of plus-33.3 percent since they left, while replacements TCU and WVU have averaged plus-13.8 percent, even with the Horned Frogs' 2014 surge. Iowa State and Texas Tech have crumbled, as well.
But if regression in Norman and Austin have been particularly damaging to the conference's reputation or mental health, you can blame that, in part, on Baylor.
Waco, Texas: the source of the Big 12's psychological disadvantage.
I'm pretty sure Art Briles is okay with that.
I'm on the record saying Oklahoma should be between solid and excellent and could be a legitimate conference title contender if just a couple of things go right. And while Texas' offense still has an immense list of questions to answer, the defense was close to elite last year and will be very good for the foreseeable future. Maybe those two programs rise again, and maybe that comes with a price for last year's conference heavyweights. Time will tell. But while OU might be very good, Baylor simply will be.
Top to bottom, the Bears have the most proven team in the conference in 2015, even counting TCU. Trips to Fort Worth, Manhattan, and Stillwater present massive land mines, and TCU will still be very good. But Baylor's the safest bet in the conference this fall.
2014 Schedule & Results
|Record: 11-2 | Adj. Record: 11-2 | Final F/+ Rk: 10|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|27-Sep||at Iowa State||92||49-28||W||87%||25.9||100%|
|18-Oct||at West Virginia||40||27-41||L||30%||-12.2||19%|
|29-Nov||vs. Texas Tech||82||48-46||W||34%||-9.8||40%|
|1-Jan||vs. Michigan State||11||41-42||L||75%||15.8||60%|
|Points Per Game||48.2||1||25.5||50|
2. Two blips
It's really hard for a college football team to play consistently excellent football. In terms of the percentiles used above, Alabama was only at 51 percent against Ole Miss last year. National champion Ohio State was at 49 percent against Virginia Tech. TCU was at 34 percent against Kansas. Great teams suffer blips; in 2014, Baylor suffered two.
The second one was costly from a style points perspective; over Thanksgiving weekend, while fellow Playoff competitor TCU was laying waste to Texas in Austin (and eventually moving from fifth to third in the Playoff rankings), Baylor struggled to put away Texas Tech. Giving up points and yards to Tech was no big thing -- offense certainly wasn't Tech's problem in 2014 -- but the Red Raiders gained 712 yards in the game and scored four touchdowns in the final 17 minutes to make up 23 points of a 25-point deficit. Tech's game-tying two-point conversion attempt failed, however, and Baylor survived. The Bears fell behind TCU in the Playoff rankings the next week, however, and depending on how you look at it, that might have given Ohio State just enough cushion to steal the final Playoff spot with its perfect Big Ten title game performance the next week.
The first blip was costly in a more direct way. A week after winning the best game of the 2014 season, Baylor traveled to Morgantown and laid an egg. The Bears averaged just 4.0 yards per play offensively, and their clutch-and-grab, "dare the refs to call penalties on your physical secondary" gambit resulted in seven defensive pass interference penalties in a 41-27 loss.
That ended up making the difference between an excellent season a transcendent one.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||49.2%||8||Succ. Rt. +||121.6||12|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||27.2||14||Def. FP+||106.0||13|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||5.1||7||Redzone S&P+||115.5||28|
|Q1 Rk||14||1st Down Rk||11|
|Q2 Rk||27||2nd Down Rk||21|
|Q3 Rk||18||3rd Down Rk||38|
Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Seth Russell||6'3, 220||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8570||48||85||804||8||1||56.5%||0||0.0%||9.5|
|Chris Johnson||6'5, 235||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8909||4||4||45||0||0||100.0%||0||0.0%||11.3|
|Jarrett Stidham||6'3, 195||Fr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9823|
3. Nick Florence threw for 4,300 yards
The biggest ding for Baylor this year, the reason why TCU is receiving top-2 hype and boasts the current betting favorite for the Heisman, is the quarterback position. TCU's awesome quarterback (Trevone Boykin) returns, and Baylor's (Bryce Petty) does not. It makes sense, I guess.
But forgive me if I can't worry too much about the Bears when it come to QBs. A year after Robert Griffin III won the 2011 Heisman while passing for 4,293 yards and 37 touchdowns, Nick Florence, his unheralded replacement, threw for 4,309 yards and 33 scores.
The next time the quarterback position is a problem for Art Briles in Waco will be the first time.
It appears Seth Russell will be the latest Briles success story. In two years of backing up Bryce Petty, Russell was perhaps a bit less efficient than preferable (58 percent completion rate), but he was a big-play machine (16.6 yards per completion, 11 touchdowns in 74 completions), and he hinted at nice mobility: he averaged 5.8 yards per carry last year and took no sacks.
Efficiency is a big deal for this (and any) offense, and we'll see if Russell can find the balance between making plays and completing more than 60 percent of his passes. But odds are good that he will be just fine. And if he's not, odds are decent that either sophomore Chris Johnson or blue-chip freshman Jarrett Stidham will.
|Shock Linwood||RB||5'9, 195||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8460||251||1252||16||5.0||4.2||39.8%||4||2|
|Johnny Jefferson||RB||5'10, 205||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8681||100||524||6||5.2||3.7||36.0%||1||1|
|Devin Chafin||RB||6'0, 225||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8342||80||383||8||4.8||2.5||46.3%||0||0|
|Seth Russell||QB||6'3, 220||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8570||32||185||3||5.8||5.2||50.0%||3||0|
|Corey Coleman||WR||5'11, 190||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9343||11||53||1||4.8||2.4||54.5%||0||0|
|Chris Johnson||QB||6'5, 235||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8909||4||29||0||7.3||6.8||50.0%||0||0|
|Anthony Webb||RB||5'11, 185||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8364|
|Terence Williams||RB||6'2, 210||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.9079|
|JaMycal Hasty||RB||5'8, 185||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8068|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|KD Cannon||IR||6'0, 175||So.||4 stars (6.0)||0.9853||94||58||1030||61.7%||18.8%||62.8%||11.0||323||11.1||147.1|
|Corey Coleman||IR||5'11, 190||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9343||88||64||1119||72.7%||17.6%||71.6%||12.7||362||12.2||159.8|
|Jay Lee||WR||6'3, 215||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8748||63||42||653||66.7%||12.6%||69.8%||10.4||149||10.4||93.3|
|Davion Hall||IR||6'2, 200||So.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9753||24||15||210||62.5%||4.8%||62.5%||8.8||28||8.8||30.0|
|Lynx Hawthorne||IR||6'0, 200||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8448||19||14||165||73.7%||3.8%||63.2%||8.7||0||8.3||23.5|
|Shock Linwood||RB||5'9, 195||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8460||9||7||90||77.8%||1.8%||55.6%||10.0||8||9.8||12.8|
|Tre'Von Armstead||TE||6'6, 270||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8624||7||5||62||71.4%||1.4%||57.1%||8.9||3||8.9||8.9|
|Devin Chafin||RB||6'0, 225||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8342||6||3||34||50.0%||1.2%||16.7%||5.7||-4||11.2||4.9|
|Johnny Jefferson||RB||5'10, 205||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8681||4||1||16||25.0%||0.8%||50.0%||4.0||0||3.4||2.3|
|Quan Jones||WR||6'5, 210||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8628||3||3||20||100.0%||0.6%||100.0%||6.7||-14||N/A||2.9|
|Gus Penning||TE||6'6, 250||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8401||3||1||2||33.3%||0.6%||33.3%||0.7||-12||1.2||0.3|
|Jordan Feuerbacher||TE||6'4, 250||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8514||2||2||15||100.0%||0.4%||100.0%||7.5||-8||N/A||2.1|
|LaQuan McGowan||TE||6'7, 410||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8503||1||1||18||100.0%||0.2%||0.0%||18.0||7||N/A||2.6|
|Ishmael Zamora||WR||6'4, 220||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8834|
|Chris Platt||IR||5'11, 165||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8601|
|Blake Lynch||WR||6'2, 195||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9199|
|Devontre Stricklin||WR||6'1, 180||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8782|
4. A few more big run plays wouldn't hurt
Even with Bryce Petty battling injury for a bit, Baylor was all sorts of efficient last year. Petty completed 63 percent of his passes, and 40 percent of the carries for Baylor's three-headed running back gained at least five yards. Baylor was strong on the ground and in the air and converted scoring opportunities into touchdowns as well as almost anybody in the country.
If we're nitpicking, however, Baylor could have used a few more big plays. The Bears did have 66 passes of 20-plus yards, sixth in the country. But that was down from 78 in 2013, and their 20-yard rushes fell from 34 (ninth) to 15 (76th). Shock Linwood proved in 2013 that he has plenty of big-play potential, but neither he, nor backups Johnny Jefferson and Devin Chafin, did as much in the open field.
Perhaps that was just randomness. Perhaps Russell's mobility will keep defenders' feet flat for an extra split second. Or perhaps a young back like Terence Williams or bouncy JaMycal Hasty provide an extra jolt. But if Russell is indeed less efficient throwing the ball, Baylor will need a few more explosions to keep the point totals up.
Of course, the run game will have to be an outright liability to get in the way of what might be the nation's most explosive receiving corps. KD Cannon and Corey Coleman combined to average 17.6 yards per catch from the inside receiver position, which is nuts, and while steady outside receiver Antwan Goodley is gone, Jay Lee brings plenty of experience to the table. Davion Hall and Lynx Hawthorne have patiently waited for their turn in the rotation, and redshirt freshmen Ishmael Zamora and Chris Platt looked great in the spring. Coleman might end up outside this year, but it doesn't really matter; Baylor's loaded at receiver.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Spencer Drango||LT||6'6, 310||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9031||35||Consensus All-American, 2014 1st All-Big 12|
|Desmine Hilliard||LG||6'5, 340||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||NR||18|
|Blake Muir||LG||6'6, 310||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7000||13|
|Kyle Fuller||C||6'5, 305||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8766||13|
|Jarell Broxton||RG||6'5, 330||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8600||8|
|Pat Colbert||RT||6'6, 305||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||NR||8|
|LaQuan McGowan||TE/LG||6'7, 410||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8503||0|
|Jason Osei||RT||6'4, 300||Jr.||NR||NR||0|
|Ishmael Wilson||RT||6'4, 305||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9153||0|
|Rami Hammad||RG||6'4, 325||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8962||0|
|Tanner Thrift||LT||6'5, 305||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8032||0|
|Blake Blackmar||C||6'5, 340||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8417|
|Josh Pelzel||OL||6'6, 325||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8585|
|Dominic DeSouza||OL||6'7, 300||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8387|
|Maurice Porter||OL||6'7, 315||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8741|
5. Experienced and enormous
Compared to the rest of Baylor's offensive stats, the line lagged behind a bit. The run blocking was fine, but Petty's willingness to step up in the pocket led to quite a few sacks (and big completions).
So maybe the line was merely good and not elite. But with six returnees with starting experience (93 career starts), it's hard to imagine any regression this time around. Left tackle Spencer Drango leads perhaps the conference's most experienced front five, one that only gets better with the addition of four-star sophomore transfers Ishmael Wilson and Rami Hammad, who could be keys to sustained success as BU replaces five senior linemen in 2016.
And oh, by the way, Baylor's got more size than anybody could hope for. That not only goes for the guys up front -- the six returnees with starting experience average 6'6, 317 -- but also the skill positions. A short-yardage package could include 220-pound Russell and 225-pound Chafin in the backfield, along with a big receiver (6'3, 215-pound Jay Lee), a bigger tight end (6'6, 270-pound Tre--Von Armstead), and the biggest tight end (6'7, 410-pound converted lineman LaQuan McGowan). No offense in the country has the level of versatility Baylor will have in 2015.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||39.0%||35||Succ. Rt. +||111.3||28|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||33.6||10||Off. FP+||106.0||15|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.6||93||Redzone S&P+||100.0||63|
|Q1 Rk||19||1st Down Rk||45|
|Q2 Rk||18||2nd Down Rk||95|
|Q3 Rk||54||3rd Down Rk||5|
6. No staying power
It wasn't hard to figure out where Baylor's defense might improve and regress last year. The Bears returned seven of their top eight linemen and three of five linebackers (including the quarterback of the defense, Bryce Hager) but were tasked with replacing six of their top nine in their five-man secondary. And two of the top three DB returnees were sophomores.
With big Shawn Oakman and sturdy supporting cast up front, the run defense improved from 38th in Rushing S&P+ to 27th. But despite a good pass rush, the secondary was just too young to avoid regression to 42nd in Passing S&P+. Considering where Baylor's defense used to rank, this was still pretty good. (Plus, let's be honest, the Baylor defense needs to only be decent for Baylor to win 10-plus games every year.)
Still, the Bears were glitchy in the red zone and faded drastically in the second half. Part of that is because Baylor was usually playing its backups by the fourth quarter, but there's no question the Bears usually saw diminishing returns as a game unfolded. The last three opponents of the year -- Texas Tech, Kansas State, and Michigan State -- combined to outscore BU, 47-3, in the fourth quarter.
If this was a depth or youth issue, though, it's hard to worry too much about that in 2015. Hager and nickel back Collin Brence are gone ... and that's basically it. Nine starters and 10 second-stringers return. And within this group, only about five are seniors. Baylor's offensive tempo forces its defense to play a metric ton of snaps. Depth is a requirement, but coordinator Phil Bennett should have his deepest unit yet.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Shawn Oakman||DE||6'9, 280||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9069||13||44.5||6.0%||19.5||11.0||0||3||3||0|
|K.J. Smith||DE||6'2, 255||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8553||13||36.0||4.8%||9.5||5.0||0||0||2||0|
|Beau Blackshear||DT||6'4, 300||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8485||13||35.5||4.8%||9.5||4.5||0||0||0||0|
|Andrew Billings||NT||6'2, 300||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9329||13||31.5||4.2%||11.5||2.0||0||0||1||0|
|Jamal Palmer||DE||6'3, 240||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8619||5||10.0||1.3%||3.0||2.5||0||0||0||0|
|Byron Bonds||DT||6'2, 285||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8163||13||6.5||0.9%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||1|
|Brian Nance||DE||6'3, 230||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9082||13||4.5||0.6%||0.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Suleiman Masumbuko||DT||6'2, 295||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8460||13||4.0||0.5%||1.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Trevor Clemons-Valdez||DT||6'3, 295||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8475|
|Ira Lewis||DT||6'3, 280||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8138|
|Andrew Morris||NT||6'1, 280||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8004|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Taylor Young||WLB||5'10, 225||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7893||13||74.5||10.0%||8.0||4.0||1||3||2||0|
|Aiavion Edwards||WLB||6'1, 225||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8896||11||27.5||3.7%||2.5||0.5||0||3||1||1|
|Raaquan Davis||MLB||6'1, 220||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8712||13||12.0||1.6%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Grant Campbell||MLB||6'1, 230||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8134||13||9.5||1.3%||1.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Kendall Ehrlich||MLB||6'1, 225||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8752||13||9.0||1.2%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Xavier Phillips||LB||6'1, 220||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8288|
|Clay Johnston||LB||6'2, 200||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8378|
7. Everybody but the quarterback
In 2013, we learned how important Bryce Hager was to Baylor's offense when he went down with injury. After allowing 4.6 yards per play in nine games with him, the Bears allowed 6.7 in four games without him. He and tackle Andrew Billings were aggressive and successful in stuffing the run in 2014, and while he's one of only two starters gone, he's a big guy to lose.
Still, one assumes that, with a full offseason to adjust, the Bears can find their way without him. They still have Billings, Oakman, tackle Beau Blackshear and ends Jamal Palmer and K.J. Smith, who thrived as a freshman pass rusher when Palmer got hurt last year. And they still have weakside linebacker Taylor Young, who erupted as a freshman behind Oakman.
As difficult as it was for opponents to handle Groot [Oakman] and keep him from mucking up their offenses with timely sacks, things became more difficult when the Bears started playing explosive and feisty Taylor "Rocket" Young at weakside linebacker. Standing at only 5'10 and 225 pounds, Young used his own fantastic speed and the protection of the Baylor DL to produce 92 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and four sacks despite only starting half the year.
What was especially difficult for opponents was when "Rocket" would blitz off "Groot's" shoulder and overwhelm protection sets. With Stewart and Burt both providing solid coverage behind the Bears front, it was all too easy to involve Young in the pass-rush.
If either Grant Campbell or Raaquan Davis is able to organize the defense from the MLB spot, this front six will be vicious. Life without Hager is not guaranteed to be smooth, but goodness knows the new MLB will have help around him.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Orion Stewart||DS||6'2, 200||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7000||13||67.0||9.0%||0||0||4||3||0||0|
|Xavien Howard||CB||6'2, 200||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||NR||13||46.5||6.2%||4.5||1.5||4||13||0||0|
|Terrell Burt||CS||5'10, 185||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8695||13||46.5||6.2%||1||0||0||6||1||0|
|Ryan Reid||CB||5'11, 190||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.9020||12||31.5||4.2%||0||0||0||12||2||1|
|Travon Blanchard||NB||6'2, 195||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8516||13||25.5||3.4%||2.5||0||1||0||0||0|
|Alfred Pullom||DS||6'2, 195||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8361||13||15.0||2.0%||0||0||1||0||0||0|
|Terrence Singleton||CB||5'11, 195||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8535||10||9.0||1.2%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Tion Wright||CB||5'9, 170||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8056||11||8.0||1.1%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Chance Waz||CS||5'11, 175||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8229||11||7.0||0.9%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Patrick Levels||NB||5'11, 195||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8133||12||4.5||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Taion Sells||DS||5'10, 185||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8306||7||4.5||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Chris Sanders||CB||6'0, 185||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8857|
|Cordell Dorsey||NB||6'3, 195||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8554|
|Jourdan Blake||CB||6'0, 180||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8543|
|J.W. Ketchum||DB||6'0, 190||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8777|
|Jordan Tolbert||DB||5'10, 160||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8579|
|Tony Nicholson||DB||5'9, 170||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8529|
|Henry Black||DB||5'11, 180||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8472|
8. Good in 2015, great in 2016
Twelve Baylor DBs made at least 4.5 tackles last year. One was a senior, one was a junior, and 10 were underclassmen. Corners Xavien Howard and Ryan Reid combined for 29 passes defensed as sophomores. Deep safety Orion Stewart picked off four passes as a sophomore. Backup nickelback Travon Blanchard made 2.5 tackles for loss as a freshman.
To be sure, the pass defense was a little bit inconsistent; the Bears allowed 10 more passes of 30-plus yards than they did in 2013, and opponents' completion rates rose from 48 percent to 55 percent. And, of course, while Baylor is going to try to get away with as much pressing and grabbing as the officials will allow, they were a little too blatant about it at times. Baylor led the nation with 9.8 penalties per game, and while there's not a direct correlation between penalties and success -- frequent penalties tends to mean aggressive play, which often pays off, the Bears committed 29 penalties for 320 yards in their two losses. Over the last two years, they are 5-3 when they commit more than 10 penalties and 17-1 when they don't. So there's a line there.
With experience, you tend to cross that line less frequently, even when part of your game plan is to toe it (and even when take you up on your "call everything, we dare you" challenge once or twice a year). And Baylor's defensive backfield has infinitely more experience now than it did a year ago. In Howard, the Bears have an outright star, and Reid certainly seems to have loads of potential.
|Spencer Evans||6'1, 200||So.||91||56.1||16||0||17.6%|
|Chris Callahan||5'9, 185||So.||75-76||16-20||80.0%||2-6||33.3%|
|Lynx Hawthorne||KR||6'0, 200||Jr.||8||24.0||0|
|Special Teams F/+||44|
|Field Goal Efficiency||55|
|Punt Return Efficiency||77|
|Kick Return Efficiency||57|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||44|
9. Roth was a weapon
Baylor's special teams were above average: kickoffs were a little too short, and Chris Callahan's place-kicking was spotty (though he did finish 17-for-20 on field goals after starting 1-for-6), but kick returns and Spencer Roth's punting were strengths. Even Baylor still punts three or four times per game, and Roth's boots were both long (43.4 yards) and high (19 fair catches). Callahan and kick returner Lynx Hawthorne are back, but replacing a good punter is always a little scary.
2015 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk|
|3-Oct||vs. Texas Tech||53|
|5-Nov||at Kansas State||33|
|21-Nov||at Oklahoma State||43|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||27.6% (20)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||32 / 39|
|2014 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||13 / 6.7|
|2014 TO Luck/Game||+2.4|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||17 (8, 9)|
|2014 Second-order wins (difference)||10.6 (0.4)|
10. This team is loaded
Yes, it hurts to lose the quarterbacks of both your offense (Bryce Petty) and defense (Bryce Hager). Those downgrading Baylor a bit because of two Bryces aren't completely foolish for doing so.
But that's almost literally all Baylor must replace in 2015. A team that came within a couple of eyelashes of reaching the College Football Playoff loses just five total starters and returns almost all of its second string from last year. And the star power is there, even with two fewer Bryces. The Bears still have potential All-Americans in KD Cannon and Corey Coleman at receiver, Spencer Drango at left tackle, Shawn Oakman at defensive end, and Xavien Howard at cornerback. They still have Andrew Billings and Beau Blackshear. Shock Linwood. Taylor Young. Orion Stewart. Forgive me if I figure they can replace two guys.
Yeah, Baylor's going to be awesome again this year. Maybe TCU will be, too. Maybe OU bounces back. Maybe OSU pulls an upset or two and make a title run. Maybe Baylor commits 17 penalties in a loss at KSU. There are a lot of hurdles in a nine-game conference slate.
Still, I trust Baylor more than any other team in the Big 12. As crazy as that may have been to type five years ago, it's true. If you forced me to bet my life savings on a Big 12 team making a Playoff run this year (and I'd appreciate it if you didn't), I'm picking Briles' Bears.