Freaking Baylor, though.
Before the days of Air Raid savant Art Briles and do-everything quarterback Robert Griffin III, people used to talk about relegating the Bears to the WAC or someplace and grabbing a real school like TCU or Utah or Boise State to fill out the Big 12. Man, how times change.
After toiling through two 4-8 seasons, in 2010 the Bears made a jump to 7-6 and the first bowl showing since before joining the Big 12. In 2011 Griffin won the Heisman Trophy and Baylor finished with a #12 ranking. In 2012 the Nick Florence-led Bears toppled #1 Kansas State for Baylor’s first ever victory over a top-ranked team. And in 2013 and 2014, Bryce Petty led the Bears to consecutive 11-2 seasons, Big 12 titles, and BCS/New Years Six bowl berths.
We’re really sorry, Baylor. Please don’t hurt us.
Because the longtime also-rans are now doing the running. It was easy for awhile to write Baylor off as just another team that could throw 100 passes a game and score a bajillion points, but couldn’t stop anyone, though for two seasons now the Bears have been dominant on both sides of the ball. And with most of the pieces poised to return in 2015, the road to the Big 12 title will run through Waco.
THE ART BRILES QUARTERBACK ASSEMBLY LINE
Sure, Petty’s gone, but it’s hard to worry too much about the Baylor offense.
Griffin took over in 2008 and became the best quarterback in Baylor history. Then Florence took over in 2012 and was probably a better fit for the Briles system anyway, and threw for 4,300 yards. Then Petty took over and threw for 8,000 yards and 61 touchdowns in two seasons.
Picking up on a trend here? Briles has something special going in quarterback development.
So meet Seth Russell, the latest product to roll off the Art Briles Quarterback Assembly Line. Russell, who caught a recruiter’s attention by telling him he could dunk (and then showing him), runs a faster 40 than some of his receivers and adds an element of quarterback mobility the Bears once had in Griffin (except Russell might be faster).
Also, he can make all the throws a Baylor quarterback has to be able to make.
He’ll be backed by a trio of running backs (Shock Linwood, Johnny Jefferson, and Devin Chafin) who, if we really squint, probably could have been a bit more effective out of the backfield, though it’s hard to turn one’s nose up at Linwood’s 1,252 yards and 16 touchdowns. Russell’s mobility will likely add an element of danger to these backs as defenders will have to freeze just a split second longer.
And Russell will have two of the nation’s best slot receivers in the country to throw to. K.D. Cannon and Corey Coleman combined for 2,149 yards receiving last year (a cool 11.8 yards per target). Baylor’s offense, with its absurdly wide wideout splits (slot guys a few yards outside the hashmarks, splits/flankers outside of the numbers), creates an absurd amount of space for these guys to catch and run.
Oh and speaking of catching and running, did you guys hear that Baylor has a 410-pound tight end? #FATGUYTOUCHDOWN #FATGUYTOUCHDOWN #FATGUYTOUCHDOWN #FATGUYTOUCHDOWN #FATGUYTOUCHDOWN #FATGUYTOUCHDOWN #FATGUYTOUCHDOWN #FATGUYTOUCHDOWN
A HOST OF EXPERIENCE ON DEFENSE
Baylor’s defense in 2014 was young and salty, and youth matures. The unit that TCU and Michigan State dialed up 100 points on was much better than one might guess, and stands to feature as one of the nation’s best in 2015.
The Bears were elite in the first halves of games but faded late (Michigan State and its 21 fourth quarter points can attest to that), which will happen when you play as many freshman and sophomores as Baylor did. But now a lot of already-impressive guys are back, this time with experience.
Up front, the Baylor defensive line is led by 6’9”, 280-pound Shawn Oakman (who I think gets his last name because he literally is made out of oak), who practically lived in opponents’ backfields in 2014, with 19.5 of his 44.5 tackles coming for loss (and eleven of them were sacks). Groot also broke up three passes and forced three fumbles. Joining him are two monstrous interior lineman, Beau Blackshear and Andrew Billings, topping out at 6’4” and 6’2” respectively and each weighing 300 pounds. If these guys can even maintain, much less build on, their production from 2014 opposing offenses will constantly find themselves behind schedule.
And where would Groot be without his Rocket? Then-freshman Taylor Young (“undersized” at 5’10” 225) exploded onto the scene at linebacker for 91 tackles and eight tackles for loss despite only starting half the season. He and Oakman made a vicious pass-rush combo in 2014 and will continue to wreak havoc.
At secondary, the amount of youth meant a lot of cycling in of fresh guys. This fall the Bears return eleven contributors who had at least 4.5 tackles in 2014, including Xavien Howard who will lead a unit who aims to disrupt not only by ball-swatting but also with physical play. (And they only occasionally got away with it; Baylor was the nation’s most-penalized team in 2014 and seven pass interference penalties let West Virginia stay on the field in Baylor’s only regular-season loss.) Howard personally accounted for four picks, 4.5 tackles for loss, and 13 broken up passes, and his fellow corner Ryan Reid got in on the action with twelve. They’re juniors this year.
It’s going to be fun to watch this defense feast on several young offenses in the Big 12. The best part? The offense scores so many points they don’t have to be in lockdown mode all the time, freeing them up to gamble for the big play.
REPLACING TWO PRETTY GOOD KICKERS . . .
. . . which is always cause for a little consternation. Diminutive freshman Drew Galitz takes over at punter after his predecessor pinned opponents inside their 20 on 81% of his kicks. Spencer Evans (kickoffs) and Chris Callahan (placekicker) solidify their roles with the departure of Kyle Peterson. Callahan finished the season by hitting 17 of 20 of his field goals (after a 1-for-6 start).
NOT WITHOUT OBSTACLES
Baylor is the class of the Big 12 right now. Despite the loss of its star quarterback, the Bears return every other star from an already star-studded team, and if they don’t win the conference a third straight year, it will be a massive upset.
The schedule isn’t the kindest: the Bears face a talented Texas Tech squad in Arlington, and face a brutal November schedule in which Baylor will visit Kansas State on a Thursday night (always a risky proposition), host Oklahoma, visit Oklahoma State, and on six days’ rest battle fellow conference heavyweight TCU, probably for all the marbles.
So Baylor can’t afford to take it easy. But this team is so ridiculously loaded, and Briles’ coaching and development acumen so finely honed at this point, they are the team I’m most comfortable calling as a preseason playoff representative.