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Now to see what the Matt Rhule era at Baylor actually looks like

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The Bears might be close to a bowl run.

NCAA Football: West Virginia at Baylor Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!


Year Zero

[yeer zeer-oh]

proper noun

a season in which the head coach is new and cannot immediately craft a lineup suited to winning games; it will end up regarded as a season with an artificially low win total and one that should not be used to negatively evaluate the coach


By the end of Baylor’s 2017, head coach Matt Rhule was giving regular snaps to about 11 guys he had signed as freshmen the previous February. Another 14 contributors or so had contributed few to no statistics the year before, as well.

I talk about Year Zero situations at least a few times per year in my offseason preview series, and with good reason — each year, there are a few clear situations that fit the bill. (UConn, for instance.) Sometimes a coach takes over a team with little hope of winning games, no matter what. Sometimes there’s such a dramatic shift in style that he requires quite a bit of depth chart rearranging, plus time to sign his own guys.

It happens. But it’s rarely this stark.

If you watched a Baylor game last year, it was like watching a team of replacement players during an NFL strike. You became that fan from Major League, asking “Who are these f***ing guys?”

  • Freshman Charlie Brewer ended up throwing the most passes.
  • Freshman running back John Lovett had the most carries.
  • Sophomores Denzel Mims and Tony Nicholson, who had combined for four career receptions heading into 2017, caught the most passes.
  • Of 60 offensive line starts, 35 went to guys who had never started a game before 2017.
  • Rush end Brian Nance (7.5 tackles in 2015, missed 2016 with grade issues) led defensive linemen in tackles.
  • Freshman Jalen Pitre started at strongside linebacker. Sophomores Eric Ogor (3.5 career tackles) and Henry Black (zero) saw quite a few snaps as well.
  • Freshman Harrison Hand led the secondary in tackles, and Verkedric Vaughns (14 tackles in 2016), Jameson Houston (14), Chris Miller (five), Rajah Preciado (4.5), Blake Lynch (zero), Jairon McVea (zero), Timarcus Davis (freshman), and Taion Sells (missed 2016) all saw rotation time.

This was a controlled burn of a depth chart if ever one existed.

We know why, of course. Rhule inherited a program that was dealing with a massive sexual assault problem and coming off of a season with an interim coach. Plenty of guys had already left, and plenty more were about to.

Rhule had about a month to put together a recruiting class from scratch in the winter of 2016-17, and he managed a top-40 class. His first full-year recruiting effort produced a top-30 class. This was impressive.

Now come the potential fruits of a year and a half of extreme labor. After winning just one game in 2017, Rhule’s Bears could be favored in five of their first six this fall. They return most of their passing, rushing, and receiving yards, 82 career offensive line starts, all but one primary defensive lineman, all but two linebackers, and all but two defensive backs.

S&P+ likes Baylor to go about 6-6 this year, though this isn’t a situation in which S&P+ is built to have an accurate read — your program’s five-year history is taken into account, and Rhule made it clear last year that there was little from before 2017 that he was interested in advancing.

Offense

2017 Baylor offensive radar

The good news: for a freshman, Brewer was strangely awesome on third-and-long. He was 19-for-25 for 216 yards, three TDs, and two interceptions on third-and-7 or longer (passer rating: 172.2), which is about as good as you’ll see outside of elite QBs.

The bad news: Baylor’s run game was so awful that there were too many third-and-longs.

Brewer took over for injured sophomore Zach Smith (who had himself taken over for graduate transfer Anu Solomon) in late-October. He threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes in a mad comeback against WVU that saw the Bears turn a 38-13 deficit into a 38-36 last-second defeat. He torched Kansas in the team’s only win, and he finished with a 68 percent completion rate and 146.3 passer rating. That’s damn strong.

NCAA Football: Baylor at Texas Christian
Charlie Brewer
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Smith transferred to Tulsa to play for former Art Briles assistant Philip Montgomery, so Brewer — who hails from Lake Travis, Tex., just like Baker Mayfield and countless other successful college football QBs — heads into his sophomore season as the main man; he’ll be backed up by four-star freshman Gerry Bohannon and NC State grad transfer Jalan McClendon, a big dude (6’5, 221) with 262 career passing yards and 223 career rushing yards.

Brewer will also have a familiar supporting cast around him. Freshmen and sophomores consisted of seven of Baylor’s top eight receiving targets last year, and now they’re sophomores and juniors.

That includes both all-or-nothing threats in juniors Denzel Mims and Chris Platt (combined: 19.3 yards per catch with a paltry 39 percent success rate) and potentially decent possession men in juniors Pooh Stricklin and Tony Nicholson and sophomore Gavin Holmes. Platt injured his knee pretty early in the year, but Holmes both emerged as exciting options with Brewer behind center. (So did RB-turned-DB Blake Lynch, but it appears he’ll remain a DB this year.)

Baylor’s receiving corps should be just fine without a contribution from a newcomer or youngster, but there’s extra intrigue from the addition of Tennessee transfer Jalen Hurd. The 6’4, 229-pounder was an inefficient but physical running back for the Vols, and after a year off, he’s lining up at receiver. He’s a good athlete for his size, but perhaps most importantly, he faces no immediate pressure to succeed. With Baylor’s experience, any Hurd production is a bonus.

Offensive co-coordinators Jeff Nixon and Glenn Thomas attempted relative balance on standard downs (56 percent run rate, four percentage points below the national average) before handing the ball to their QB on passing downs (75 percent pass rate, 10 percentage points higher than average). The Bears still spread the field, but operated at a pretty normal tempo. With a potentially awesome passing game, they could pick up the pace.

NCAA Football: West Virginia at Baylor
Denzel Mims
Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Really, the only reason to doubt the passing game is the run game. Baylor fell to 126th in rushing success rate, 127th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), and dead last in FBS in power success rate. Freshman John Lovett did nice things in the open field but rarely got there, and returnees JaMycal Hasty and Terence Williams did next to nothing while battling injuries.

Williams transferred to Houston, so some combination of Lovett, Hasty, sophomore Trestan Ebner, redshirt freshmen Dru Dixon and Abram Smith, and true freshman Craig Williams will need to bring more life. Ebner was easily the most efficient runner of the bunch, but he had more receiving targets (26) than rushes (25); Lovett had nice explosiveness and no consistency. The most likely load carrier, assuming good health, will be Hasty.

The line boasts more experience than it did. Two-year starters Blake Blackmar and Pat Lawrence return, along with four others who started at least one game. Plus, Rhule added Clemson transfer Jake Fruhmorgen (eight career starts), UCF’s Christian Beard, and big JUCO transfer Johncarlo Valentin. He redshirted five freshmen last year, as well. So the depth chart is full. That doesn’t guarantee success, but the bar for improvement is pretty low.

Defense

2017 Baylor defensive radar

The staff Rhule put together to run his offense was a mish-mash of guys who hadn’t worked together much — Thomas was a former Rhule assistant at Temple, Nixon had mostly NFL coaching experience over the last decade, tight ends coach Joey McGuire was an experience Texas high school head man, etc.

On defense, though, Rhule brought one of the best-regarded assistants in the country. Snow’s been coaching for 40 years and joined up with Rhule at Temple. After a Year Zero of his own there, he crafted one of the most consistently awesome defenses in the country — the Owls ranked between 11th and 24th in Def. S&P+ each year from 2014-16.

He had one hell of a task last fall. His defense was young and constantly banged up; only two of the top six linebackers and three of the top 14 defensive backs played in all 12 games. Oh yeah, and there’s no immediate answer for “How do you coach good defense in the Big 12?”

Baylor was aggressive when it had the chance, ranking 25th in stuff rate, 53rd in power success rate, and 55th in Adj. Sack Rate. But the Bears were 111th in Def. S&P+, getting torched without enough disruptive plays to make up for it.

NCAA Football: Texas at Baylor
Ira Lewis
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

In theory, last year’s growing pains are this year’s experience. Baylor returns six linemen, five linebackers, and seven defensive backs who made at least 12.5 tackles last year; they also add Texas A&M transfer James Lockhart at end and Temple transfer Derrek Thomas at cornerback and return rush end Xavier Jones, who missed eight games last year.

Snow’s second BU defense will have drastically more depth and experience, and in players like cornerback Grayland Arnold, nose tackle Ira Lewis, and middle linebacker Clay Johnston (plus perhaps Blake Lynch, now that he’s a full-time defender), he has some play-makers.

Still, what can Snow actually do against Big 12 defenses? What can anyone do? Snow likes getting as aggressive as possible — Temple ranked 12th in havoc rate (tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total plays) and second in defensive line havoc in 2016 — but only one Big 12 team succeeded at that last year: TCU, which managed to rank eighth in success rate while getting torched a few times per game (2.7 gains per game of 30-plus yards, 104th in the country).

Just about everybody else was forced to adopt a bend-don’t-break approach. Will Snow have the pieces he needs to play like he wants?

NCAA Football: Iowa State at Baylor
Grayland Arnold
Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Baylor had a youth movement on special teams as well, but this one worked out alright. The Bears ranked 46th in Special Teams S&P+ despite a sophomore punter/kicker (Connor Martin), a freshman kickoffs guy (Jay Sedwick), and a sophomore punt returner (Tony Nicholson).

Granted, kickoffs were a bit of a disaster (and kick returns were forgettable), but Nicholson was solid, and Martin was excellent in the place-kicking department. He was only decent at punting, but that’s fine — senior Drew Galitz (45.2-yard average) was outstanding in this regard before suffering a knee injury. They’re all back.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Abilene Christian NR 45.8 100%
8-Sep at UTSA 104 9.8 71%
15-Sep Duke 40 0.6 51%
22-Sep Kansas 103 14.5 80%
29-Sep at Oklahoma 9 -18.1 15%
6-Oct Kansas State 61 4.5 60%
13-Oct at Texas 27 -8.2 32%
25-Oct at West Virginia 43 -3.6 42%
3-Nov Oklahoma State 19 -5.5 37%
10-Nov at Iowa State 46 -3.2 43%
17-Nov TCU 22 -5.0 39%
24-Nov vs. Texas Tech 47 -0.2 49%
Projected S&P+ Rk 50
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 38 / 63
Projected wins 6.2
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 9.9 (22)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 34 / 31
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -14 / -6.3
2017 TO Luck/Game -3.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 88% (93%, 82%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 3.1 (-2.1)

S&P+ might be overestimating Baylor’s odds of a rebound, but it’s not hard to see how one might come to fruition. Brewer gets a whole year behind center with a wonderfully experienced receiving corps, the run game improves because of good health and experience, and a better-tested defense makes more big plays of its own while suffering fewer breakdowns.

The Bears were dreadfully inconsistent but showed enough moments — an eight-point loss to Oklahoma, a two-point loss to WVU, a sufficiently impressive win over Kansas — to hint at a high ceiling. And now last year’s youth movement is this year’s veteran influx.

A fast start is key. Within the first half of the season, Baylor will play its five most winnable games — home games against Abilene Christian, Duke, Kansas, and Kansas State and a road game against UTSA — before the Big 12’s depth begins to take over. A 4-2 or 5-1 start could lead to bowl eligibility, but anything less would make it tricky.

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