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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 64: Baylor

I don’t care if Texas is 4-3, 7-0, 0-7 or anywhere in between: Texas is Texas, is always Texas, and Baylor is always, always Baylor. Meaning that the U.T. fan base is supposed to look at its upcoming schedule, circle Oklahoma in red ink and then, with the same pen, put a large W alongside Baylor, telling friends and family that hey, if you’re going to schedule a wedding between September and December, that’s the time. Not anymore – or at least not for the foreseeable future, because Art Briles is in town, and what’s up is down, left is right, and what were once clear wins are now games very much up for grabs. Because Baylor is winning football games, and the Bears might just be getting warmed up.

Conference
Big 12

Location
Waco, Tex.

Nickname
Bears

Returning starters
13 (8 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 78

2010 record
(7-6, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 58

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    T.C.U.
  • Sept. 17
    Stephen F. Austin
  • Sept. 24
    Rice
  • Oct. 1
    at Kansas St.
  • Oct. 8
    Iowa St.
  • Oct. 15
    at Texas A&M
  • Oct. 29
    at Oklahoma St.
  • Nov. 5
    Missouri
  • Oct. 12
    at Kansas
  • Nov. 19
    Oklahoma
  • Nov. 26
    Texas Tech (in Arlington, Tex.)
  • Dec. 3
    Texas

Last year’s prediction

I see only two games in its first eight where Baylor will be outclassed: T.C.U. — clearly — and Texas Tech, with the latter team potentially entering a down season following a coaching change. Obviously, the Bears have a shot at heading to Austin on the final weekend of October with a 6-2 mark. I don’t know if I have the confidence to predict Baylor to have such a start, however. In order to so, these Bears would have to start 3-1 in conference play; Baylor has won three games in Big 12 action only once since the formation of the conference. Yet it’s foolish — nonsensical — to predict Baylor’s season based on its woeful history: this a different team, with speed and athleticism to burn, and with a coaching staff absolutely capable of leading this team to bowl play. Having said that, I’m not willing to take that leap — yet.

2010 recap

In a nutshell I find nothing whatsoever to nitpick over Baylor’s 2010 season, which found the Bears back in bowl play after a 16-year absence. For the first time in the history of the Big 12, Baylor wasn’t bad, wasn’t just competitive – the Bears were actually good, believe it or not. Very good at times, in fact. They got it done with the finest offense in school history, one that set or tied 55 school records, including the big ones: total offense (6,179 yards), passing yards (3,649), yards per carry (5.4) and scoring (405 points). It was the offense that propelled Baylor to a 7-2 start, which included a 4-1 Big 12 mark highlighted by that win over Texas. But it was the offense that disappeared down the stretch, averaging only 24 points per game as Baylor ended the year with an 0-4 slide. Not the defense did any favors then, nor did it do much even when the Bears were winning games.

High point The win over Texas, Baylor’s first in Austin since 1991, and only its third in Austin since 1952. The Saturday before, the Bears knocked off then-No. 22 Kansas State, 47-42, at home. It was the program’s finest stretch of conference play since the formation of the Big 12 in 1996.

Low point The 0-4 finish: 55-28 to Oklahoma State, 42-30 to Texas A&M, 53-24 to Oklahoma and, most disappointing of all, 38-14 to Illinois in the Texas Bowl. That Baylor was in bowl play at all was a major highlight, but the showing against Illinois was probably Baylor’s worst of the season. The other two losses came to T.C.U. and, once again, Texas Tech.

Tidbit From the birth of the Big 12 in 1996 until the dissolution of the two divisions following last season, Baylor went a combined 5-70 against its South division brethren. The program went 0-16 against Oklahoma and Texas Tech, 2-14 against Oklahoma State and Texas and 2-13 against Texas A&M. Baylor fared better against the North division: a combined 12-33, though a combined 1-15 against Nebraska and Missouri.

Tidbit (scoring edition) Baylor continues to live or die on offense, as indicated during that late-season lull. The Bears are 0-12 under Briles when scoring less than 20 points, 2-15 when gaining less than 20 first downs, 1-10 when rushing for less than 100 yards and 2-9 when passing for less than 200 yards. Baylor was averaging 31.3 points per game during its 7-2 start; as listed above, the Bears averaged 24 points per game when closing 0-4.

Former players in the N.F.L.

16 LB Colin Allred (Tennessee), CB Mikail Baker (St. Louis), CB Josh Bell (Green Bay), K Matt Bryant (Atlanta), RB Jay Finley (Cincinnati), WR David Gettis (Carolina), LB Joe Pawelek (Seattle), P Daniel Sepulveda (Pittsburgh), OT Jason Smith (St. Louis Rams), LS Justin Snow (Indianapolis), DT Phillip Taylor (Cleveland),  C J.D. Walton (Denver), OG Danny Watkins (Philadelphia), LS Jonathan Weeks (Houston), CB C.J. Wilson (Carolina), WR Dominique Zeigler (San Francisco).

Arbitrary top five list

Players in Tampa Bay Rays history
1. OF Carl Crawford (2002-10).
2. 3B Evan Longoria (2008-present).
3. 1B Aubrey Huff (2000-6).
4. SP James Shields (2006-present).
5. 1B Carlos Pena (2007-10).

Coaching

Art Briles (Texas Tech ’79), 15-22 after three seasons with the Bears. After a pair of four-win seasons, Briles got the Bears back into bowl play last fall after a 16-year absence. Sound easy? Not quite: Baylor has so long been a Big 12 afterthought that this Briles-led transition entailed not only rehabbing an entire roster but also the psyche of an entire program. His debut season, 2008, was a good start. The Bears scored 336 points (28 points per game), their most since scoring 362 in 1994, and made great strides as a team despite playing a schedule that featured six ranked opponents, three of whom were in the top 10. The program’s overall improvement has already been felt on the recruiting trail, as Briles has hauled in four of the most impressive Baylor recruiting classes in recent memory. While at Houston, Briles inherited a program two years removed from an 0-11 campaign and went 34-28 over five seasons (2003-7), making four bowl appearances. In 2003, Briles led the team to a 7-6 finish with a trip to the Hawaii Bowl, making him only the second coach in school history to reach postseason play in his first season with the program. After going a combined 9-14 from 2004-5, Briles went 10-4 in 2006 and 8-4 in 2007, again leading the Cougars to bowl play. Prior to being hired at Houston, Briles spent three seasons as the running backs coach at Texas Tech (2000-2) under Mike Leach. Briles also spent 12 highly successful seasons as the head coach at Stephenville High School in Texas (the alma mater of Kevin Kolb, his record-setting quarterback at Houston), where he won a pair of back-to-back Texas state championships in 1993-4 and 1998-99. His prep experience has paid enormous dividends in recruiting, as Briles remains a popular and respected figure among the all-important Texas high school coaching ranks.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Talk about a coaching coup: Briles corralled former Pittsburgh, L.S.U. and Kansas State defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, who was a very popular target for several B.C.S. conference programs once he hit the market in January. Bennett spent the last three years as the coordinator at Pittsburgh, taking on interim head coach duties for the Panthers’ bowl win over Kentucky following Dave Wannstedt’s dismissal. This is a huge get for Baylor, which has clearly found its grove offensively but has been searching for answers on defense.

Players to watch

Though only a junior, Robert Griffin III has been on campus for three full seasons and four springs, meaning he knows this offense forwards, backwards and all points in between. In short: Griffin is only going to get better and better, especially now that he’s nearly two full years removed from the knee injury that cut short his 2009 season. Griffin didn’t show much rust last fall, rushing for 635 yards and 8 scores while continuing to be one of the Big 12’s most efficient passers. Talk about a perfect fit for this offense: Griffin seems built to play under Briles, both as a runner and a passer. Last fall, he threw for 3,501 yards with 22 touchdowns while hitting on 67.0 percent of his attempts, with the latter nearly 10 percentage points higher than during his terrific freshman campaign.

What can Griffin do in 2011? He’ll continue to rewrite Baylor’s record books, most of which he already holds – passing yards, total offense, passing scores and completion percentage. Griffin is also a clear Heisman contender, if only for one major reason: no other quarterback, though Northwestern’s Dan Persa comes close, means as much to his team as does Griffin. Is he already the finest offensive player in school history? I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that even after two full years; when all is said and done, it’ll be Griffin in a landslide.

Losing Danny Watkins hurts, but the Bears still return five linemen with pretty extensive starting experience. It’s a veteran group, led by juniors and seniors with one exception: sophomore Cyril Richardson takes over for Watkins at left tackle after making four starts at guard in 2010. The sky is the limit for Richardson, but you do wonder how quickly he’ll take to this all-important role – though he does not lack for talent. Senior center Philip Blake, a former JUCO transfer, really took to the center spot in 2010 after starting at right tackle as a sophomore. He’s probably the line’s best; Bears will flank him with guards Cameron Kaufhold Robert T. Griffin, as they did a year ago. Then there’s junior right tackle Ivory Wade, a first-year starter last fall.

Looking for the deepest position on the team? Try wide receiver: Baylor brings back five players who made at least 42 grabs a year ago, led by Kendall Wright (78 receptions for 952 yards and 7 scores) and Josh Gordon (42 for 714 with 7 scores). Both earned all-conference recognition a year ago; it was the second time on the all-Big 12 team for Wright. It doesn’t stop with that pair. Sophomore Tevin Reese (45 for 401) is a nice fit at inside receiver, joining Wright. Lanear Sampson (42 for 390) and Terrance Williams (43 for 484, 4 scores) line up at outside receiver along with Gordon. Five deep with proven talent, perhaps as much as eight or nine deep if you count several talented young receivers hungry to crack the rotation.

Look for Bennett to have an immediate impact on defense. He’s that good a coordinator: the Bears might not become stalwarts defensively overnight, but Bennett will have this team playing better football from day one. His first order of business was tweaking Baylor’s base alignment, dropping a linebacker and going with five starting defensive backs. The Bears have the speed along the back seven to make that change, though Bennett must rebuild the defense without the use of each of last season’s five leading tacklers.

I’m keeping close watch on two positions: nose guard and a hybrid linebacker-safety role that fits as the team’s fifth defensive back. It’s at nose guard that Baylor must replace all-Big 12 pick Phillip Taylor, whose impact will be very difficult to duplicate. Senior Nicolas Jean-Baptiste (31 tackles) will step into those shoes, and while Jean-Baptiste has good size he probably won’t have the same disruptive presence as his predecessor – though few would. He’ll be spelled on occasion by JUCO transfer Nick Johnson.

Outside of Taylor, the line returns intact: senior Tracy Robertson returns at tackle, while the Bears bring back several talented ends. There’s a nice blend of experience and blossoming young talent at end, with senior Zac Scotton and junior Gary Mason Jr. (21 tackles, 3 for loss) joined by three very intriguing sophomores. One is Tevin Elliott, who posted a team-best five sacks en route to honorable mention all-Big 12 honors. He’ll battle for snaps with Terrance Lloyd, who started four games as a freshman before suffering a knee injury, and converted linebacker Chris McAllister (42 tackles), who made a pair of starts in 2010.

That there will be only two starting linebackers does little to diminish the importance of the position; far from it, in fact. Baylor will still rely on senior middle linebacker Elliot Coffey (61 tackles, most of any returning defender) to be the brains of the defense while sticking his nose into the mix against the run. And the Bears are very hopeful that converted defensive back Prince Kent (team-best two interceptions) can be a difference-maker on the weak side, thanks to his speed and athleticism. But his road to a starting job is currently blocked by former quarterback Brody Trahan, a sophomore, who vaulted to the top of the depth chart with a solid spring.

Back to that hybrid defensive back spot: Baylor has laid out the red carpet for sophomore Ahmad Dixon, a highly-touted recruit who made 16 stops in a reserve role last fall. If there’s going to be a breakout star on this defense – someone who benefits greatly from Bennett’s tutelage – it’s going to be Dixon. The Bears have identified their starting cornerbacks in junior Chance Casey (48 tackles, 1 interception) and sophomore Tyler Stephenson but must find two new starting safeties. One will be junior Mike Hicks (28 tackles, 1 pick), who takes over at cover safety; the other might be sophomore deep safety Sam Holl, who had a nice spring after playing primarily on special teams as a freshman.

Position battle(s) to watch

Running back Though overshadowed by Griffin, running back Jay Finley broke Baylor’s single-season rushing record with 1,218 yards last fall, rushing for at least 82 yards – including 250 against Kansas State – in each of his last six Big 12 games. Griffin does his fair share of work on the ground, as touched on above, but the Bears are still in the market for a back who can help carry the load. It may be a by-committee approach, as Baylor has four backs in the mix for carries, but as of today, junior Jarred Salubi (215 yards, 8.7 yards per carry) currently heads the depth chart. Salubi did his work without getting a lot of touches, but showed late in the year – such as in his two-score performance against Oklahoma – that he may be more than just a change-of-pace option. Baylor also returns former Houston transfer Terrance Ganaway, now a senior, who rushed for 295 yards last fall. Ganaway is a bruiser, so he could provide a nice compliment to Salubi’s running style. This pair seems to be leading the way, but the Bears do have two other options: sophomore Glasco Martin and former JUCO transfer Isaac Williams. So Baylor has numbers, even if it’s hard to imagine any one of the four backs having quite the year Finley put together in 2010. But as a group, Baylor – thanks to Griffin’s passing and a fine offensive line – should continue to be successful running the football.

Game(s) to watch

Baylor should be 4-1 heading into a mid-October trip to Texas A&M. It’s actually vital that the Bears are 4-1, what with the Aggies and Oklahoma State, both on the road, coming in back-to-back weeks. The year ends with another date with Texas, with Baylor looking for two straight wins over the Longhorns for the first time since 1991-92.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Baylor’s going back to bowl play in 2011. Could you have imagined that Briles would succeeded where so many others have tried and failed? Well, he has, putting the Bears into yearly bowl contention by rebuilding this offense, landing some very impressive talent and now, with Bennett’s arrival, doing his best to put forth a defense on an even level with a potent scoring attack. Bennett’s a great coach, but it does seem as if Baylor will again be carried by this offense. Griffin is in the Heisman mix, though his team’s record is probably going to prevent him from being too viable a national candidate. The offensive line looks very good, even without Watkins at left tackle, and the receiver corps features five targets with extensive experience. Baylor might be even more potent offensively than it was a year ago, in fact. But the defense is a question mark: replacing Taylor will be a chore, and Baylor needs several sophomores – those ends, Kent, Holl and Dixon, for example – to step up and produce in major roles. They have the talent do so, but the defense might be a year away. There’s also the schedule; count Baylor among those teams who don’t adore the new nine-game Big 12 slate. But there are only four true road games, even if the Bears do end the year with Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Texas. Still, it doesn’t look like a schedule conducive to great success – three or four years ago, this is a schedule that would point towards a nine-loss season. But this isn’t the Baylor of 2006 or 2007; this is the Baylor of 2011, which has the talent and coaching to go toe-to-toe with the rest of the Big 12. There are some issues to address, but I’d be very surprised if Baylor doesn’t get to at least six wins and return to bowl play.

Dream season The Bears continue to climb up the Big 12 ladder: 8-4, 6-3 in conference play.

Nightmare season Baylor can’t make it two straight bowl bids, sliding from seven wins down to 4-8, 3-6 in the Big 12.

In case you were wondering

Where do Baylor fans congregate? I have nothing but love for those smaller independent sites, so be sure to take a trip to Baylor Fans, where you can find chatter on Baylor football, basketball and baseball. For recruiting information, take a look at Sic Em Sports and Bears Illustrated.

Word Count

Through 57 teams 165,195.

Up Next

Who is No. 63? Tomorrow’s program has gone 7-11 against B.C.S. conference competition since 2005.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. M Meyer says:

    It looks like BYU is up next.

    Paul: Nope. It’ll be some time until we get to the Cougars. Maybe I need to double-check that hint. (Yes, I did some poor calculations. The record above is 7-11, not 8-9 as first written.)

  2. Rookierookie says:

    Off the top of my head I’ll say that Fresno State is coming up.

  3. Rookierookie says:

    Nope, evidently not Fresno State.

  4. Casey says:

    if its Navy, they are closer to 14-17 against BCS if you include 2005 season and forward.

  5. Casey says:

    now you updated it lower, so not Navy. Maybe Hawaii

    Paul: Yeah, definitely not Navy. As you wrote above, the Midshipmen play far too many B.C.S. conference opponents to have only 18 such games since 2005.

  6. HW86 says:

    Fresno State is 7-11 since 2005, gotta be them.

  7. Eksynyt says:

    Pat Hill’s Bulldogs of Fresno State. Anyone, anywhere, anytime. Though, they seem to be an afterthought in recent seasons. I still remember they had a very good team in 2005 that nearly knocked off that phenomenal USC team.

  8. Burnt Orange says:

    The Baylor -TCU game is another September 3rd game which is interesting. TCU is breaking in a new qb and several other starters and might be ripe for an upset.

    On Griffin being the best Baylor offensive player of all time, several candidates come to mind (Lawrence Elkins was a two time consensus All American wr in the early sixties and caught 70 passes in a season which was extraordinary in that era). However, Griffin is in another class. I still maintain that before the knee injury, Griffin was one of the most gifted college quarterbacks ever seen in this area.

  9. BocaRocket says:

    Not Toledo, they’re 5-8 since 2005.

  10. Steve says:

    Jay Finley is a beast. I have the bears down for 8 wins with one of those coming against TCU. Call me crazy but I see it happening.

    I’m going to go with Tulsa, But that would be way low for them in my opinion. I would like to have seen them go after Herb Hand to replace Graham.

  11. Green & Gold says:

    Not to nitpick, but the score of last season’s Baylor vs. K-State game was 47-42. Another example of the type of defense (or lack thereof) that Baylor had last year.

    Paul: Thanks for the fix. Updated above, thanks again.

  12. schedule nit says:

    Southrn Miss is next

  13. Rookierookie says:

    With the hint fixed, now it’s evidently Fresno State…

  14. Ezra says:

    TCU’s opener in Waco this year has this Frog fan mildly concerned. This year Baylor is going to score more than 10 against the Frogs, and TCU isn’t going to get to 45; but the odds probably will still favor the Frogs, and for good reasons.

    First, TCU’s defensive front six is going to shine in ’11, and if Jay Finley couldn’t make a dent in TCU’s ’10 D, there’s no reason to expect the ’11 committee to do so this season.

    Second, the Frogs’ offense, while taking a step back, is not going to hibernate. I see Waymon James, Ed Wesley, Matt Tucker, and the receivers (three good ones are returning, look for a few new ones to shine) giving Pachall plenty of targets.

  15. Eh says:

    By and large a pretty good review of the team. One statement was way off though. “count Baylor among those teams who don’t adore the new nine-game Big 12 slate.”

    Baylor benefits in a huge way going to a round robin schedule. It puts all of the former north teams on the same level playing field – none of them ever had to play the top teams in the conference every year in the past. It levels it for KSU, Iowa State, KU and Baylor. As bad as Baylor was for most of the B12, they looked worse playing in the toughest division in college football from 1998-2006.

    Paul: Yeah, a few Baylor fans have made the same comment. I have to admit I didn’t see it from that perspective. I wrote the same thing about Kansas, and it makes far more sense to the Jayhawks.

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