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The Countdown

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

A Retrospective

The Year in Review: Baylor (10-3, 6-3)

Robert Griffin III is gone. He’ll be seen again in Waco, but only in highlight montages — he has time… launches it into the end zone… touchdown! — and on the odd fall Saturday, should he be free of all N.F.L. obligations. All that’s left are records, plenty of records, as well as the sort of imprint that comes only with being the finest player in program history. That’s no hyperbole: There’s Griffin, followed by a solid gap, then there’s Mike Singletary, then there’s Don Trull, and then there’s everybody else. So how does Baylor recover from losing the most transcendent figure in program history, not to mention losing him one year ahead of schedule?

Baylor will replace Griffin with senior Nick Florence, and a team could do worse when it comes to a first-year starter. That’s because Florence isn’t a neophyte, having taken significant snaps in each of the last three seasons and, in 2009, starting seven of the final eight games of the year after Griffin suffered a knee injury.

The Bears hoped to provide a year of separation between their starter and backup by putting a redshirt on Florence in 2011; he arrived a year later than Griffin, but was thrust into an immediate role as a true freshman. Any plan Baylor had of sitting Florence as a rookie went out the window once Griffin injured his knee three weeks into the 2009 season.

Any plan of giving Florence a redshirt in 2011 went out the window at halftime against Texas Tech, when Griffin slammed his head to the turf when scrambling outside the pocket late in the second quarter — after sitting a play, Griffin returned to the field in time to score on a three-yard touchdown run. In came Florence, who led the Bears to four offensive touchdowns over the game’s final 30 minutes.

On the afternoon, and in one half of work, Florence completed 9 of 12 attempts for 151 yards and 2 touchdowns. He added another 14 yards and a score on the ground. Not Griffin, but certainly Griffin-like: cold and rusty, expecting his redshirt season to continue, Florence had the best half of his college career. Racket up the expectations surrounding his senior season, right?

Well, let’s get this out of the way: Florence is no Griffin. And no one is — or few are, seeing that Cam Newton was pretty good, and pretty good fairly recently. What Florence is, however, is the end result of three full seasons spent ingesting every aspect of Art Briles’ offense, and that should be enough to keep Baylor’s offense interesting.

So how does Baylor recover from losing the most transcendent figure in program history? By trusting the system. It’s a system that works, and doesn’t necessarily need a Griffin at the helm to win games in conference play. That never hurts, of course, and that Baylor only had two other quarterbacks on the roster in 2011 does indicate that the program wasn’t entirely expecting Griffin to leave after his junior season.

But one key factor separates Baylor’s immediate future at quarterback from Auburn’s fortunes after Newton opted to forego his final season of eligibility. The Bears are more 2007 Ohio State than 2011 Auburn: Briles, like the Buckeyes, who replaced a Heisman winner in Troy Smith with Todd Boeckman, has an experienced hand — in general, in terms of snaps, and in his offensive system — to insert into the starting lineup.

What did Auburn have waiting in the wings? Barrett Trotter, a junior with nine career pass attempts under his belt; who had spent two seasons in Gus Malzahn’s offense; and who was recruited by the previous staff for an entirely different offensive system. In comparison, Florence looks like the second coming of Robert Griffin III. He’s not, but Florence is a game-tested, experienced senior with a solid grasp of this offense. That should be good enough to keep Baylor’s bowl streak alive.

Season grade: A+ This wasn’t the best team in program history. That title goes to the Singletary-led and Grant Teaff-coached team from 1980, which won the Southwest Conference and might have been in the line for the national title had it not — somehow — lost to San Jose State in early November. Last year’s Bears were the second-best team in school history, however, and certainly featured the best offense and best player since the program’s inception in 1899. How many other F.B.S. teams can say the same about their 2011 season? I count five, including Baylor: Houston, Southern Mississippi, Louisiana-Lafayette and Oklahoma State. All will receive the highest possible mark, just as the Bears do here. Just how good was Baylor’s offense? The Bears scored 589 points, which is only 96 fewer than the program scored over Kevin Steele’s entire four-year tenure from 1999-2002.

High point Beating Oklahoma, something Baylor hadn’t done since, well, ever. Zero wins against 20 losses heading into 2011; one win against 20 losses heading into 2012. Beating Texas the way it did — with such ease and confidence — sent a pretty clear message: If you were still on the fence, the win proved that this wasn’t your daddy’s Bears.

Low point Baylor still went 1-3 in Big 12 road games, highlighting the sort of road deficiencies that have plagued the program for a generation. The final loss on the season, a 59-24 defeat at Oklahoma State that was worse than the score indicated, dropped the Bears to 4-3 overall, 1-3 in conference play.

Offensive M.V.P. Robert Griffin III. The Heisman bylaws have been stretched over the last decade-plus, but one unwritten rule remains in place: to win, an individual needs to have been the best player on his own team. Griffin’s final numbers, since this may be the last time I get the opportunity to write them in full: 291 completions in 402 attempts for 4,293 yards and 37 touchdowns against 6 interceptions; a efficiency rating of 189.5, the second-highest in F.B.S. history; 179 carries for 699 yards and 10 scores on the ground.

Defensive M.V.P. Nicolas Jean-Baptiste, a former walk-on, was Baylor’s lone all-conference selection. He was a second-team pick, thanks in large part to his ability to stand tall at the point of attack; as impotent as Baylor’s defense could be at times, it’s frightening to consider how sieve-like the Bears would have been against the run without Jean-Baptiste lining up over center. There are some nice pieces returning in 2012, led by defensive backs Ahmad Dixon, Mike Hicks and Sam Holl; the latter finished one tackle shy of senior Elliot Coffey for the team lead.

Stock watch Let’s think about the pieces Baylor must replace. There’s Griffin, of course. There’s running back Terrance Ganaway, who left quite an impression on Washington in the Alamo Bowl. There’s all-American wide receiver Kendall Wright — in short, say goodbye to Baylor’s powerful offensive triumvirate. Two interior offensive linemen must be replaced, as must two interior defensive linemen. The team’s leading tackler. What’s back, on the other hand? Begin with Briles, and continue with the idea that Baylor has passed the tipping point where one or two departures would spell a return to the program’s sad days of old. Can the Bears retool on the fly without a Griffin, Ganaway, Wright and more? Not quite: Baylor won’t win another 10 games in 2012. But the program has become a Big 12 player for a reason. The system works. Despite the losses, the Bears should get back into bowl play in 2012.

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  1. Parker says:

    Hi Paul,

    Baylor shut out its FCS opponent. In its other 12 games against FBS schools, Baylor allowed over 40 points per game and went 9-3.

    That’s incomprehensible.

    One side “benefit” of the putrid Baylor defense was that RG3 got to play every down. For example, RG3 played horribly at Oklahoma State when it mattered and Baylor got down 49-3 after 43 minutes. RG3 ended the day with 425 yards passing, but over half those yards came in the final 17 minutes when Oklahoma State was playing the scrubs.

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