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Baylor is the reason OU and Texas aren't OU and Texas any more

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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.

-- Big 12 being 'psychologically disadvantaged' starts with OU and Texas (ESPN)

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
Performance
Adj. Scoring
Margin
Win
Expectancy
31-Aug SMU 127 45-0 W 96% 40.7 100%
6-Sep Northwestern State N/A 70-6 W 95% 38.1 100%
12-Sep at Buffalo 114 63-21 W 98% 49.0 100%
27-Sep at Iowa State 92 49-28 W 87% 25.9 100%
4-Oct at Texas 53 28-7 W 78% 17.7 94%
11-Oct TCU 6 61-58 W 80% 20.0 63%
18-Oct at West Virginia 40 27-41 L 30% -12.2 19%
1-Nov Kansas 99 60-14 W 86% 25.4 100%
8-Nov at Oklahoma 19 48-14 W 90% 29.3 97%
22-Nov Oklahoma State 75 49-28 W 89% 28.7 100%
29-Nov vs. Texas Tech 82 48-46 W 34% -9.8 40%
6-Dec Kansas State 26 38-27 W 83% 21.9 91%
1-Jan vs. Michigan State 11 41-42 L 75% 15.8 60%

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 41.4 7 24.3 39
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.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.95 19 IsoPPP+ 126.4 18
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
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 19.0 ACTUAL 13 -6.0
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 1 13 12 18
RUSHING 29 25 7 46
PASSING 4 8 7 9
Standard Downs 17 7 22
Passing Downs 18 23 15
Q1 Rk 14 1st Down Rk 11
Q2 Rk 27 2nd Down Rk 21
Q3 Rk 18 3rd Down Rk 38
Q4 Rk 23

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Bryce Petty
270 428 3855 29 7 63.1% 24 5.3% 8.2
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.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
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
Bryce Petty QB
60 255 6 4.3 2.6 45.0% 5 1
Seth Russell QB 6'3, 220 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8570 32 185 3 5.8 5.2 50.0% 3 0
Silas Nacita RB
31 191 3 6.2 3.7 51.6% 0 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
Antwan Goodley WR
8 71 0 8.9 8.9 50.0% 1 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







Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Antwan Goodley WR
108 60 830 55.6% 21.6% 73.1% 7.7 83 7.4 118.6
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
Levi Norwood IR
48 35 319 72.9% 9.6% 58.3% 6.6 -95 6.7 45.6
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
Clay Fuller IR
22 13 194 59.1% 4.4% 59.1% 8.8 34 8.8 27.7
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.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 113 3.17 3.98 42.1% 75.0% 14.3% 108.0 5.0% 6.9%
Rank 24 37 9 29 16 10 55 74 55
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
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
Troy Baker RT
22
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
Tyler Edwards C
0
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.

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Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.83 54 IsoPPP+ 112.8 33
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
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 25.6 ACTUAL 26.0 +0.4
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 51 32 28 33
RUSHING 16 27 26 25
PASSING 110 42 33 48
Standard Downs 38 28 43
Passing Downs 22 31 23
Q1 Rk 19 1st Down Rk 45
Q2 Rk 18 2nd Down Rk 95
Q3 Rk 54 3rd Down Rk 5
Q4 Rk 119

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.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 118.1 2.61 2.36 34.0% 60.4% 22.6% 134.8 5.4% 9.3%
Rank 12 27 9 20 28 26 15 47 33
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
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
Javonte Magee DE
13 7.5 1.0% 3.5 1.0 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








Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Bryce Hager MLB
13 95.0 12.7% 12.0 2.0 1 1 2 0
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.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
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
Collin Brence NB
13 43.5 5.8% 3.5 1 1 2 0 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.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Spencer Roth 47 43.4 2 19 19 80.9%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Spencer Evans 6'1, 200 So. 91 56.1 16 0 17.6%
Kyle Peterson 17 60.5 7 1 41.2%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Chris Callahan 5'9, 185 So. 75-76 16-20 80.0% 2-6 33.3%
Kyle Peterson 6-6 0-0 N/A 0-0 N/A
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Levi Norwood KR 14 19.7 0
Lynx Hawthorne KR 6'0, 200 Jr. 8 24.0 0
Levi Norwood PR 13 5.8 0
Cal Spangler PR 6 2.2 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 44
Field Goal Efficiency 55
Punt Return Efficiency 77
Kick Return Efficiency 57
Punt Efficiency 16
Kickoff Efficiency 87
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

2015 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk
4-Sep at SMU 117
12-Sep Lamar NR
26-Sep Rice 88
3-Oct vs. Texas Tech 53
10-Oct at Kansas 95
17-Oct West Virginia 40
24-Oct Iowa State 86
5-Nov at Kansas State 33
14-Nov Oklahoma 10
21-Nov at Oklahoma State 43
27-Nov at TCU 18
5-Dec Texas 36
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.