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Matt Rhule gets a mulligan year at Baylor in 2017, but might not need it

Let’s talk about the Bears’ upcoming season.

NCAA Basketball: Oklahoma State at Baylor Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

This preview originally published May 15 and has since been updated.

I said everything I could think to say about the Baylor scandal in last year’s preview, and I’ll go ahead and keep it there. Art Briles and every assistant coach are gone, sent out of Waco after a lot of wins and a permanent stain.

Matt Rhule and an entirely new team have come to town. So let’s talk about that team.

A New Yorker by birth and a Penn State Nittany Lion by choice, the 42-year-old Rhule fulfills the “opposite of your last hire” philosophy that a lot of schools seek when replacing a coach. His background, playing style, and accent couldn’t be more different than Briles’.

But he also brings success to the table. In four years as Temple head coach, here’s what Rhule accomplished:

  • 2013: 2-10, 106th in S&P+
  • 2014: 6-6, 81st
  • 2015: 10-4, 55th
  • 2016: 10-4, 32nd

Under Steve Addazio, Temple had run aground after success. Rhule stripped it to the studs in 2013, then began building a house worthy of Magnolia Homes.

Under Rhule’s guidance, Temple won 10 games in a season for just the second and third times in its history. His defenses, led by Snow, ranked in the S&P+ top 25 in each of the last three years, peaking at 11th in 2014 and returning to 16th in 2016. The offense was explosive but inconsistent, ranking between 78th and 86th in Off. S&P+ three times in four years, but behind that defense, the Owls were ruthless and competitive.

Not including last year’s bowl loss to Wake Forest — Rhule had already left by then — Temple lost seven total games in his last two seasons, all to teams that won at least eight games. They were focused and strong against bad teams, and they won their share against good teams; they beat Penn State and nine-win Memphis in 2015, and they took the 2016 AAC with wins over 11-win USF and nine-win Navy.

Based on what we assume he wants to build in Waco, Rhule inherits a strange set of personnel. He takes on a team that ranked in the Off. S&P+ top five every year from 2011-15 and a respectable 38th during last year’s awkward Jim Grobe experiment. The defense peaked at 26th in Def. S&P+ in 2013 but slid out of the top 50 in each of the last two seasons.

Baylor was reliant on offense to win games. Rhule was not. Baylor operated with extreme tempo. Rhule did not.

This becomes a game of optimist vs. pessimist, really. An optimist might see that leftover offensive personnel, combined with Snow’s defensive influence, as a top-20 team in 2017. A pessimist might see an offensive reset coming, and without enough of Snow’s personnel to make up the difference.

S&P+ likes Baylor’s chances in 2017, mostly because S&P+ is not programmed to deal with Baylor’s coaching turnover. On paper, though, there are a lot of pieces. We’ll find out soon enough whether paper applies to Rhule’s 2017 squad.


2016 in review

2016 Baylor statistical profile.

A reader asked whether the 2017 Baylor preview would just be a shrug emoji:

With so much of a sea change, there really isn’t a reason to take a long look at the Bears’ 2016 campaign. But it was pretty unique all the same.

Under Grobe’s leadership, Baylor started out strong, rocking bad Northwestern State and Rice teams, overcoming a slow start to beat SMU by four touchdowns, and taking down Oklahoma State at home. They needed a fourth-quarter surge to get past Iowa State in Ames, but they responded with an easy win over Kansas. They reached the midpoint unbeaten.

With the first setback, however, came many more.

  • First 6 games (6-0): Avg. percentile performance: 81% (~top 25) | Avg. yards per play: BU 6.6, Opp 4.2 (plus-2.4)
  • Next 6 games (0-6): Avg. percentile performance: 35% (~top 85) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.9, BU 5.7 (minus-1.2)

The offense went from excellent to average, and the defense went from excellent to awful until rebounding in a 24-21 season-finale loss to West Virginia. That the Bears rallied to look awesome against Boise State in the Cactus Bowl was further proof that bowls are a total motivational crapshoot and ended one of the odder 7-6 seasons you’ll ever see.


Offense

Baylor offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Rhule’s Temple offenses were about as exciting as barely-top-80 units can be. The Owls ranked 77th in success rate but 21st in IsoPPP, which measures the magnitude of successful plays. And despite a slow tempo and inefficiency issues, they ranked 27th in the country with 75 gains of 20-plus yards. Meanwhile, they were great at pulling rabbits out of hats — they were 80th in Standard Downs S&P+ but 24th in Passing Downs S&P+. They were bad at falling into third-and-long but pretty good at digging out of it.

Looking at the 2016 Temple offense applies a little bit to Baylor; Glenn Thomas, Rhule’s coordinator, is on staff as co-coordinator and QBs coach. Line coach George DeLeone also made the move. But really, the 2006 Temple offense applies almost as much as 2016. And that’s a bit of an oddity.

DeLeone was Temple’s coordinator in 2006, Al Golden’s first year in charge. The Owls went just 1-11 in the quintessential Year Zero situation, averaging a woeful 10.9 points per game. DeLeone and assistants Jeff Nixon (running backs coach) and Bob Bicknell (offensive line) had almost nothing to work with and came up with few answers.

Bicknell and Nixon both moved on to NFL assistant coaching jobs in 2007 (which opened the door for Rhule, also a Golden assistant, to move from defensive line coach to the offensive side of the ball) and remained there through 2016. They were both working for another bad offense — that of the San Francisco 49ers — last fall. But now the band is getting back together. Nixon comes on as offensive co-coordinator and running backs coach, and Bicknell is leading the receivers.

It goes without saying that the 2017 Baylor offense has a little bit more talent than the 2006 Temple attack. And there could be a unique influence in the form of tight ends coach Joey McGuire, three-time state championship coach at Cedar Hill High School in Texas. Rhule was canny in bringing on a guy with obvious Texas ties, but we’ll see what that means for the Baylor spread.

NCAA Football: Cactus Bowl-Boise State vs Baylor
Terence Williams (22) and JaMycal Hasty (6)
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

There’s plenty of reason to guess Baylor might look a lot like Temple did last year: explosive and volatile.

  • The starting quarterback will likely either be sophomore Zach Smith, senior Anu Solomon, or freshman Charlie Brewer. Smith was explosive but inconsistent and interception-prone in 2016, Solomon had an up-and-down tenure as Arizona’s on-and-off starter, and Brewer is a true freshman. All three have unproven upside.
  • Leading returning rusher Terence Williams had average efficiency and above average explosiveness while backup JaMycal Hasty had solid efficiency and minimal explosiveness.
  • Of the three returning receivers who were targeted at least 10 times last year — junior Chris Platt and sophomores Blake Lynch and Pooh Stricklin — none had a 50 percent success rate, but Platt and Stricklin both averaged at least 16 yards per catch.
  • Three line starters return, as does a fourth with starting experience, but perhaps the two most important starters — three-year starting center Kyle Fuller and left tackle Dom Desouza — do not. [Update: New starting center Tanner Thrift has since retired.]

There’s plenty of upside, and Baylor’s offense was rather efficient a year ago (30th in success rate), but most of the sources of stability — receiver KD Cannon, quarterback Seth Russell, Fuller, Desouza — are gone. Add to that a completely new offensive coaching staff, and there will probably be plenty of misfires and growing pains. The question is, how many big plays can the Bears come up with to offset the inefficiency? The answer could determine whether Baylor is a Big 12 contender.

Defense

Baylor defensive radar
Temple defensive radar

While Briles’ offense in his back pocket, former defensive coordinator Phil Bennett felt the best way to create wins was to get as aggressive as possible, risking big plays in the name of turnovers and three-and-outs. When he had an experienced secondary, as he did in 2013, this worked beautifully.

But last year, with a less consistent offense and a drastically inexperienced defensive front, the Bears had an identity crisis. They almost became a bend-don’t-break unit. And when the offense began failing a bit more over the second half of the year, the defense began failing a lot.

Snow doesn’t do “bend don’t break.” His Temple defenses were physical and efficient, constantly forcing three-and-outs with few big plays. The 61-year-old has been around the block — he was a coordinator at Boise State, Arizona State, UCLA, Washington, and Eastern Michigan — and he works well with Rhule. How well will he work with Baylor’s personnel?

He inherits experience. Every lineman returns, as do four of the top six linebackers and four of six defensive backs. His first Baylor defense could have as many as eight junior or senior starters. And while the wrong people left in the secondary, it does seem like he’s got some aggressive pieces.

We’ll start in the back. Safeties Orion Stewart and Patrick Levels were Bennett’s most exciting defenders last year (they combined for 17 tackles for loss and 11 passes defensed), and they’re both gone. But seven returnees each defensed at least four passes, and Travon Blanchard combined nine TFLs with six PDs.

Granted, most of the experience is at safety. Blanchard, Chance Waz, Davion Hall, and a returning-from-injury Taion Sells are all senior, as is reserve Tyler Jaynes; meanwhile, gone are the two leading tacklers at CB. Sophomores Grayland Arnold and Jameson Houston and junior Verkedric Vaughns all saw time in the rotation and combined for 15 PDs, but Baylor’s an injury or two from being green at corner.

That puts pressure on the front. Bennett deployed a deep rotation last year, and that should pay off. Four returning linebackers logged at least 18.5 tackles, and all four had at least three TFLs. Meanwhile, six returning linemen had at least 14 tackles, and all of them had at least 2.5 TFLs. That’s a lot of havoc potential.

Baylor’s run defense was soft; the Bears didn’t allow many big plays but ranked 80th in success rate and 126th in power success rate. But they were also young up front. Of those six returning linemen, four were sophomores and one was a freshman. Pass rusher K.J. Smith was the only veteran. Now they’re all experienced, and they could get a boost a two former four-star recruit — sophomore tackle Bravvion Roy — who had a nice spring.

Between the depth and attacking talent up front and the serious veteran presence at safety, Baylor should be able to overcome potential inexperience at cornerback. I don’t see Snow turning this into a top-15 defense overnight, but it’s easy to see a top-40 unit.


Special Teams

Baylor’s been miserable in special teams for two straight years. Chris Callahan was inconsistent in the place-kicking department, and while then-freshman Tony Nicholson was an efficient punt returner, he didn’t have much to work with on kick returns. Thanks mostly to a No. 114 ranking in field goal efficiency and a No. 125 ranking in punt return efficiency, the Bears ranked 110th in Special Teams S&P+.

That Nicholson is no longer a freshman will help, as will the return of decent punter Drew Galitz. Still, the best hope is for a mediocre unit.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Liberty NR 31.2 96%
9-Sep UTSA 91 18.8 86%
16-Sep at Duke 65 4.1 59%
23-Sep Oklahoma 5 -11.3 26%
30-Sep at Kansas State 35 -0.9 48%
14-Oct at Oklahoma State 22 -6.2 36%
21-Oct West Virginia 69 11.0 74%
28-Oct Texas 16 -3.2 43%
4-Nov at Kansas 107 17.7 85%
11-Nov Texas Tech 66 9.3 71%
18-Nov Iowa State 57 8.1 68%
25-Nov at TCU 21 -6.3 36%
Projected S&P+ Rk 28
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 37 / 40
Projected wins 7.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 13.5 (16)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 24 / 32
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -5 / -7.1
2016 TO Luck/Game +0.8
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 56% (45%, 67%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 7.8 (-0.8)

Briles and his staff are gone. President Ken Starr is gone. Athletic director Ian McCaw is gone. Sure, most of the roster is made up of Briles recruits, and lord knows the school is still figuring out ways to stay in the wrong spotlight, but as far as the football product is concerned, this is a new Baylor.

Rhule was a pretty incredible hire, both because of his reputation for character and his impeccable head coaching résumé. We don’t know how he’ll handle Texas recruiting, and we don’t know how his impenetrable defense will handle the high-octane Big 12.

You never know how a hire is going to work out. Rhule’s lack of experience in Texas could backfire, as could the massive culture change he’s attempting. But considering the negative headlines, landing Rhule was a damn coup. He aced his first head coaching exam at Temple.

In the short term ... we’ll see. There’s reason to be skeptical of the offense, and it might take Snow a year to get all the pieces in place on defense. (Then again, there are enough seniors that it could take two years.)

Then there’s the schedule. Yes, Baylor begins with likely wins against Liberty and UTSA (though UTSA could be tricky), but the Bears embark on a trip to Duke and could begin Big 12 play as an underdog in each of their first three games.

It could make Baylor quite the wildcard. If the Bears are 5-1 when West Virginia comes to town on October 21, they are well-positioned to become conference favorite if Oklahoma slips up. But they could also be 2-4.

Team preview stats

All power conference preview data to date.