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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. 78: Baylor

These bears are fighting. Baylor will need to fight for every inch to go bowling in 2010.

No one player in the Big 12 means more to the success of his team than Robert Griffin III, Baylor’s supremely talented sophomore quarterback. The Bears won as many games in his three starts last fall — two — as they would win in the nine games Griffin was sidelined by his knee injury, sending this program to its 12th eight-loss season in 13 years. So Baylor’s rebuilding process has been waylaid by a year; the only good news I can offer to a downtrodden fan base is that Griffin was granted a medical hardship waiver for last season, meaning he retains three additional seasons of eligibility. I can also offer my firm belief that at some point in the next three years, Baylor will earn a bowl berth.

Conference
Big 12, South

Location
Waco, Tex.

Nickname
Bears

Returning starters
12 (7 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 79

2009 record
(4-8, 1-7)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 89

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Sam Houston St.
  • Sept. 11
    Buffalo
  • Sept. 18
    at T.C.U.
  • Sept. 25
    at Rice
  • Oct. 2
    Kansas
  • Oct. 9
    Texas Tech (in Dallas)
  • Oct. 16
    at Colorado
  • Oct. 23
    Kansas St.
  • Oct. 30
    at Texas
  • Nov. 6
    at Oklahoma St.
  • Nov. 13
    Texas A&M
  • Nov. 20
    Oklahoma

Last year’s prediction

And there is reason to be excited: B.U. has a wonderful coach, a future Heisman contender in Griffin and two potential all-Americans on its defense in Pawelek and Lake, though the entire defense is not yet up to par. Can the Bears get to six wins? Yes, but it will be close. I’m just concerned where the team – while not your Baylor squad of old – is going to get three Big 12 wins. Iowa State is one, but where else? Nebraska at home? Not going to happen. Missouri on the road? Perhaps. A&M on the road? Baylor won last year, no reason to think it can’t win again. A 5-7 finish, with most of the offense slated to be back in 2010 and another stellar recruiting class on the way, should not be viewed as a failure.

2009 recap

In a nutshell A promising season turned following Griffin’s injury. With him went Baylor’s bowl hopes. I’m giving Briles a pass — and deservedly so, of course — but when it came to Big 12 play, it was the same old Bears: 1-7, with only one loss coming by less than 10 points and four by at least two touchdowns, including a disheartening road loss to Iowa State. The offense, tailor fit to Griffin’s skill set, was pedestrian: 20.8 points and a measly 100.6 yards rushing per game. Baylor was able to move the ball through the air — to the tune of 242.3 yards per game — but the offense was stymied by a penchant for turnovers.

High point A 40-32 win at Missouri on Nov. 7. For one weekend, at least, the Bears looked like the team some predicted them to be: dynamic in the passing game and solid against the run. In addition to throwing for 427 yards and 3 touchdowns, Baylor limited Missouri to 10 yards rushing on 25 carries.

Low point Griffin’s A.C.L. tear on Sept. 26 doomed Baylor’s season, even if the Bears rebounded nicely to post a 31-15 win over Kent State the following weekend. Seven losses in eight Big 12 games followed, with the worst a 35-point loss at Texas A&M on Nov. 21. If Baylor had hoped that 2009 would see them vault past the Aggies on the Big 12 South totem pole, Griffin’s injury pushed its timetable back at least one season.

Tidbit Baylor is 7-2 under Briles when allowing 21 points or fewer, 1-14 when allowing more than 21 points. Both of its two losses in this case came last season: by 20-10 against Nebraska and by 20-13 against Texas Tech. Yet another example of how much this team missed Griffin during Big 12 play.

Tidbit (Big 12 edition) Since the birth of the Big 12 in 1996, Baylor has gone a combined 4-66 against its South division brethren. The program is 0-14 against Oklahoma and Texas Tech, 1-13 against Oklahoma State and Texas and 2-12 against Texas A&M. Baylor’s better against the North division: a combined 10-32, though a combined 1-15 against Nebraska and Missouri.

Former players in the N.F.L.

16 LB Colin Allred (Tennessee), CB Josh Bell (Green Bay), K Matt Bryant (Atlanta), NT Trey Bryant (Atlanta), OT Dan Gay (New York Jets), WR David Gettis (Carolina), DT Jason Lamb (New York Jets), LB Joe Pawelek (Seattle), P Daniel Sepulveda (Pittsburgh), OT Jason Smith (St. Louis Rams), WR Ernest Smith (San Diego), TE Justin Snow (Indianapolis), C J.D. Walton (Denver), LS Jonathan Weeks (Houston), CB C.J. Wilson (Carolina), WR Dominique Zeigler (San Francisco).

Arbitrary top five list

Novels by John Irving
1. The World According to Garp (1978).
2. The Cider House Rules (1985).
3. A Widow for One Year (1998).
4. A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989).
5. The Water-Method Man (1972).

Coaching

Art Briles (Texas Tech ’79), 8-16 after two seasons with the Bears. Though not necessarily impressive in the win column, the past two years have seen Baylor begin the process of reinventing itself as a realistic bowl contender. Sound easy? Not quite: Baylor has so long been a Big 12 afterthought that such a transition entails 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 top 25 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 three 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.

Players to watch

Robert Griffin III is really, really good — a pitch-perfect fit for this spread offense, thanks to his impressive poise in the pocket and his largely unparalleled ability to make plays with his feet. I said in last year’s preview that I’d take Griffin, not another talented then-sophomore, Terrell Pryor, if I were to run the spread. If Griffin can recover from his A.C.L. injury, I stand by that statement. He’s not yet 100 percent, however, and took it easy during the spring while continuing his recovery process. Prior to the injury, Griffin was well on his way to duplicating his fantastic true freshman numbers: 2,091 yards passing, 843 yards rushing and a school-record 28 total touchdowns, all while throwing only 3 interceptions. Let’s see if he can regain his outstanding speed and agility in 2010, or if it will take Griffin a year to make a complete recovery; we’re in a new age of medicine, but it still takes a full calendar year — give or take — for a player to recover from an A.C.L. tear. Baylor needs him on Sept. 4.

Senior Jay Finley battled injuries of his own in 2009, costing him all of three games and parts of a handful of others. His rushing output took quite a dip — from 865 yards in 2008 to only 370 last fall — but this decline can undoubtedly be tied back to his injuries, as well as missing Griffin in the backfield. The duo combined for 1,708 yards rushing in 2008, illustrating just how potent a one-two combination the senior and the young quarterback can be when healthy. Terrance Ganaway, a former Houston transfer, played well in Finley’s stead, leading the team with five touchdowns; he’ll again be a top reserve, along with sophomore Jarred Salubi.

Don’t ignore the loss of center J.D. Walton, a multiple-time all-Big 12 pick and unquestioned leader of the Baylor offensive front in each of the last handful of seasons. The Bears plan to replace Walton by moving Philip Blake, a junior, from right tackle — where he started all 12 games last fall — to the interior of the line. It’s a logical move for Baylor to make; sophomore Ivory Wade is ready to assume the right tackle spot after starting seven games at left guard in his debut season. Wade will eventually move to the blind side, a position currently occupied by the former JUCO transfer Danny Watkins has made a home since arriving on campus a season ago. Watkins inherited the unenviable task of replacing all-American left tackle Jason Smith, but acquitted himself during his first season on the F.B.S. level. Four players will battle to fill the two open guard spots: Cameron Kaufhold, John Jones — this pair currently stand atop the depth chart — Cyril Richardson and Robert Griffin. This Robert Griffin, if you were unaware, is slightly larger than Baylor’s starting quarterback.

The loss of Ernest Smith and David Gettis will ensure that junior Kendall Wright will become an even larger part of the Baylor passing attack. He’ll again be the team’s leading inside receiver, one year after leading the Bears in receptions (60), receiving yards (740) and touchdowns (4). Wright will have to replicate those numbers without Smith and Gettis drawing attention, however, leaving senior Krys Buerck, for instance, responsible for taking advantage of single coverage. Buerck alternated between offense and defense as an underclassman, making 23 receptions as a freshman before making six starts at cornerback in 2008. He was moved back to receiver last fall but made a very slight impact; he’s very likely Baylor’s second starting inside receiver in 2010. Lanear Sampson returns at one outside receiver spots after making 29 catches a year ago, helping him land conference all-freshman honors. Another handful of youngsters, such as Terrance Williams and Josh Gordon, will compete for snaps on the outside.

The defensive line returns former Penn State transfer Phil Taylor, whose production during his first season of eligibility in Waco was often stymied by a toe injury. Taylor had a hard time shaking off his case of turf toe, as big guys often struggle to do, but remained an imposing figure on the interior of the line: 25 tackles (2.5 for loss) and, most improbably, an interception. While Taylor will be counted on to occupy blocker, clogging up opposing run games, Baylor expects Tracy Robertson to make plays in the backfield. The converted defensive end will play inside on a full-time basis last fall, one year after leading the Bears with three sacks. His move opens up an end spot for Gary Mason, Jr., a sophomore, though he’ll be pushed by talented redshirt freshman Tevin Elliott. End Zac Scotton (22 tackles, 1 sack) remains in the starting lineup after making seven starts a year ago.

There’s no replacing a talent like Joe Pawelek, a four-time all-conference honoree at middle linebacker. Baylor could only hope to replace his individual talent with two players; not surprisingly, this is what the Bears plan to do. The first is veteran Chris Francis, last year’s leading reserve at linebacker. The senior made 45 stops last fall, stepping in both for Pawelek in the middle and on the outside. Redshirt freshman Chris McAllister earned rave reviews during the spring, one year after causing havoc as part of Baylor’s scout team defense. Look for both to earn significant snaps in 2010: Francis may start more often than not, but McAllister is the unquestioned future at the position.

Another pair, long-time reserves Elliot Coffey and Earl Patin, will battle to replace Antonio Jones on the strong side. Coffey, a junior, currently holds the starting role, but Patin — as he’s shown at times during his career — has the talent to perform on a high level in the Big 12. Baylor even moved Patin down to end at times in 2009, hoping to get the senior on the field. In addition to supplying his typically stellar play, Baylor will ask senior Antonio Johnson to take on a leadership role in his final season. If all else fails, Johnson can just lead by example: the all-conference candidate made 77 tackles (6 for loss) a year ago, his third campaign in the starting lineup. Pawelek can’t — won’t — be replaced; but I don’t expect very much of a decline in production from 2009.

Position battles to watch

Secondary Nothing wrong with the first team, it seems, though Baylor lacks quality depth in the defensive backfield. About that first team, however: it’s not bad. The Bears will miss free safety Jordan Lake, of course, but hope to offset his departure by moving senior Tim Atchison back to safety after a two-year hiatus at cornerback. Atchison started all 12 games of last season at cornerback, making 43 tackles and an interception. He has solid ball skills, as illustrated during his stint at cornerback, but Atchison will not step against the run quite like Lake, who did so as well as — if not better than — any free safety in the country. Baylor will also return part-time starters Chance Casey and Clifton Odom, who stand atop the depth chart at cornerback heading into the summer. Senior Byron Lander — three starts last fall — is expected to start opposite Atchison at safety. Depth is a concern, as noted, but Baylor expects to receive a massive boost from the arrival of several highly-touted recruits come the fall. One such recruit, Prince Kent, arrived in time to participate during the spring. The jewel of Baylor’s most recent class, Ahmad Dixon, is expected to earn significant snaps immediately upon arriving on campus; Dixon turned down an offer from Texas, among countless others, to join Baylor’s rebuilding process. Four more true freshmen will stake their claims to playing time: Tuswani Copeland, Sam Holl, Tyler Stephenson and T.C. Robinson. This group might very well be the most impressive defensive back haul in the country — Baylor will need at least half of the six to have an immediate impact in order to have the depth needed to combat the offenses in the Big 12.

Game(s) to watch

The first four games of Big 12 play. Baylor should enter conference action with a 3-1 record — losses to either Buffalo or Rice would be devastating — and land Kansas and Kansas State at home, Texas Tech in Dallas and Colorado on the road before facing the heart of the Big 12 South. There is a chance that Baylor could have clinched bowl eligibility before Oct. 30.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Oklahoma State will assuredly take a sizable step back in 2010, meaning Baylor has its best chance in years to avoid the bottom spot in the Big 12 South. The outcome of that goal — and the goal of six wins — will be decided before Oct. 30, as noted above. 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. I have Baylor tied with Oklahoma State at the bottom of the Big 12 South, yes, but I do think this will end of being one of the best teams in the country not to reach bowl eligibility. Yeah, nice compliment. Barring a complete meltdown, the youth on this team will use this season’s experience to lead the Bears to bowl play in 2011.

Dream season A healthy Griffin is all it takes, as the third-year quarterback leads Baylor to nine wins –  a program-best since 1986.

Nightmare season No injuries this time, and few excuses for Briles: 3-9, 1-7 in conference play.

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.

Up Next

Who is No. 77? Our next university’s football team has won 44 percent as many games as its men’s basketball team over the past two years, the highest such percentage in the school’s history.

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Comments

  1. jjtiller says:

    I know the special team unit is an uncovered area for the PSR, but I think punter Derek Epperson is honorable to mention, he’s the best P of the 2011 draft class

  2. Alan says:

    Have you read “Last Night in Twisted River”?

    Paul: Yeah, I didn’t love it. Was a little disappointed.

  3. Ed says:

    DUKE, easy

  4. M Meyer says:

    It’s not that Indiana Hoosier Football got better or anything. No, Indiana Hoosier basketball just got really REALLY bad. Right?

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