College Football

Baylor will field a football team in 2016, for better or worse.

Last December I couldn’t wait to write this preview. Baylor had just run up 49 points and 645 rushing yards on North Carolina using a Cro-Magnon wildcat offense which threatened to set football back a hundred years. Art Briles was hailed as a genius.

Now as I sit down to write I’m dreading it. This preview was going to be a celebration of Briles’ offensive brilliance. Instead it’s a lament for the victims of sexual violence and for a program that put winning above virtue.

Briles is gone, fired ahead of the release of the Pepper Hamilton findings in May. To Baylor’s shame, the full contents of that report have not been released, so we will likely never know the details of all that transpired between players, coaches, and victims behind closed doors. (Interim president David Garland claims no such written report exists.) However, the Findings of Fact released by the university on May 26 outlines a coaching and football support staff which created an environment where football players accused of sexual violence were kept safer than their victims.

Baylor fired Briles and school president Ken Starr. Athletic director Ian McCaw resigned. Baylor will play football; however, I can’t help but believe the appropriate response from Baylor University would have been to cancel football this season.

I know, I know: I am a know-nothing blogger thirsty for clicks and this is my hot take. I promise it is not.

Were the full findings released, they would likely outline specific accusations against players who are still or very recently were on campus. They would likely the inappropriate responses of their coaches and support staff when dealing with victims, some of whom are almost certainly also still on campus. Baylor must ask itself whether this is appropriate.

Furthermore, after the hiring of interim head coach Jim Grobe, it was announced that Briles’ assistants would be retained through the 2016 season. Even without the full findings of Pepper Hamilton, I can’t comprehend why Baylor feels keeping Briles’ assistants is appropriate. Grobe claims no culture of bad behavior exists at Baylor. I wonder whether he read the Findings of Fact issued by the university, because it contained phrases like this:

“Football coaches and staff took affirmative steps to maintain internal control over discipline of players and to actively divert cases from the student conduct or criminal processes. In some cases, football coaches and staff had inappropriate involvement in disciplinary and criminal matters or engaged in improper conduct that reinforced an overall perception that football was above the rules, and that there was no culture of accountability for misconduct.”

Here are the questions Baylor needs to be asking itself as it makes decisions: Does this action make women feel safer? Does this action make it victims of sexual violence feel free to come forward? Does this action make the victims of sexual violence who were previously stifled, silenced, even threatened with reprisals feel like justice has been served?

I don’t feel Baylor fielding a football team in 2016 does any of this.

Baylor will likely receive some sort of punishment from state and federal governments. The NCAA should stay a thousand miles away from this if it knows what’s good for it. Pep rallies will be held. McLane Stadium will be sold out come September 3. After Baylor likely slaughters Northwestern State 70-7 some very stupid person will write a column about how the Baylor football team overcame adversity and found redemption, because this is what always happens.

But will victims past, present, and future feel vindicated? Safer? I hope so, but I doubt it.

Despite what I feel is a mishandling of this situation by Baylor, I believe there is much potential for positive change to come as a result. Athletic departments nationwide will surely realize the microscope they are under and make appropriate changes to their disciplinary processes, and take steps to educate student athletes about the treatment of women. Grobe has already wisely declared future player discipline should go through the school’s Title IX office. Sexual violence survivor Brenda Tracy spoke with the Nebraska Cornhuskers football team in June and with the Baylor football and basketball teams on July 25. (Tracy was the survivor of a gang rape in 1998 by two Oregon State players while Nebraska head coach Mike Riley was coaching there.) Tracy has spoken with NCAA officials and will speak at other schools in the future.

These are strong steps in the right direction. In the meantime, such as it is, Baylor will field a football team in 2016.

Baylor 2015BY LAND AND AIR AND SEA

With quarterback Seth Russell, Baylor was unstoppable, lighting up opponents to the tune of 61 points per game. Russell is basically the perfect quarterback for Baylor’s system. He has an arm strong enough to put the ball wherever he wants and has the legs to scramble for days in between Baylor’s wide line splits. Though seven games, he threw 29 touchdowns at a clip of 10.3 yards per attempt, while also rushing for six scores and nine yards per attempt. That’s bonkers. In this system Russell is an offensive juggernaut.

And what’s terrifying for defenses is that, like his counterpart Patrick Mahomes II at Texas Tech, there’s room for improvement. Mediocre outings against SMU and Iowa State (a game from which he left injured) dragged his completion rate down to a pedestrian 59.5%, and while Russell was pretty smart with the ball, he did throw three picks to some guy called Lamar.

This is called nitpicking.

Also, Russell got to rack up those absurd numbers against the likes of SMU, Lamar, Rice, Texas Tech, and Kansas, which meant we didn’t get to see him match wits against the Big 12’s top teams . . . although he did get to see him throw against West Virginia, the conference’s best secondary. All he did was go 20-for-33 for five touchdowns and no picks, so I think he would have done fine, but what a shame it was that we didn’t get that clash of titans. Hopefully we will in 2016.

There is no depth behind him. In the wake of Briles’ firing several Bears, most notably backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham, opted to transfer. Stidham had the unenviable task of replacing Russell in three huge games and performed admirably before going down with injury himself. He’s gone and his loss leaves a gaping hole in the depth chart.

Lynx Hawthorne filled Stidham and Russell’s shoes in the Russell Athletic Bowl when Baylor went full single-wing. While I expect OC Kendall Briles to incorporate some of those concepts into Baylor’s veer-and-shoot this fall, if Hawthorne sees time at quarterback again, something has gone terribly wrong.

Russell gets almost his full complement of weapons. Running backs Shock Linwood and Johnny Jefferson (2,329 yards and 18 touchdowns together) return, as do wideouts KD Cannon and Chris Platt.

Obviously, the absence of athletic freaks like wideout Corey Coleman and linemen Spencer Drango, Jarrell Broxton, and Blake Muir will be felt initially. Baylor has recruited very well at these positions and while depth will be an issue (and even more so starting in 2017), in the short term Baylor will still be Baylor on offense.

YOU ONLY HAVE TO BE KINDA GOOD DEFENSIVELY

With an offense that can score 60+ points at the drop of a hat, you only need your defense to allow 59 points or fewer. A relatively simple task, even in the Big 12. (Are you listening, Texas Tech?)

The defense stepped up down the stretch. Baylor’s three losses came by ten, seven, and six points, which means they were always within spitting distance. Even with the losses on offense an undefeated season was on the table.

Baylor must now replace five of the top six tacklers from a solid defensive line and leading tackler Grant Campbell at linebacker.

Fortunately, the Bears have all the depth in the secondary you could hope for. It’s pretty much the only deep unit on the team, and should be the strength of this defense in the next couple of until as attrition really sets in. Travon Blanchard and Ryan Reid provided plenty of disruption with five interceptions and 14 breakups between them, and the Bears have four freshmen fresh off redshirts ready to provide relief.

WITH AN OFFENSE THIS GOOD . . .

. . . Baylor didn’t need its special teams much, and that was a good thing. Chris Callahan was perfect on PATs and decent on kicks under 40 yards, but missed on all three beyond that distance. Drew Galitz could have stood to put a little more zest on his punts but he was a freshman, he’ll improve.

On the other side, neither Platt, Cannon, nor Hawthorne was worth a darn as a returner, which is kind of baffling considering how athletic these guys are in an open field. Fortunately the offense seldom needed much help.

Baylor 2016WIN NOW . . .

. . . because the next few years are going to be tough in Waco. There was a rash of transfers, a number of incoming freshmen were granted releases from their letters of intent, and the 2017 class is bailing. The long-term fate of Baylor athletics will become clearer as a coach is hired for 2017.

In the short term, the Bears have the parts they need to continue playing at a high level, but we thought the same thing about the 2012 Arkansas Razorbacks under John L. Smith and they went 4-8. Baylor is more talented than that Arkansas team and plays in a more forgiving conference. That said, I think road trips to Texas and Oklahoma and the neutral site game with Texas Tech are going to be tough outs for this squad. Home games with TCU and Oklahoma State are pick ‘ems.

However, there are a lot of things that are a heck of a lot more important than winning, and Baylor has to figure that out. Winning has a way of papering over most issues. I believe Baylor will play good football in 2016, but more importantly I hope Baylor learns the lessons of the Briles era and continues to make its campus a safer place for all of its students.

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