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2016 Opponent Previews: Baylor Bears

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Leading up to the start of the 2016 football campaign, we will be previewing each opponent the Pokes play this season.

This trip to Waco to face a Baylor program under heavy fire is likely the most intriguing game, for many reasons.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

When: September 24, game time TBD

Where: McLane Stadium (Waco, TX...capacity 45,000)

Watch/Listen: Cowboy Radio Network (TV broadcast TBD)

Last year:

Baylor started the season 8-0 before losing at home to then #12, and eventual Big 12 champ and CFP participant, Oklahoma. The Bears rebounded with a solid win in Stillwater, pounding a tired Cowboys' defense into submission, however they stumbled mightily at the finish line, losing consecutive games to TCU and Texas to complete their regular season at 9-3 (6-3 Big 12). They ran for over 8,000 yards in beating North Carolina in the Russell Athletic Bowl.

As with many teams that make big runs and stumble late, scheduling and injuries played a major role. Baylor was just one of the contenders for the Big 12 and the CFP that had to deal with a heavily backloaded slate. That schedule, plus the losses of starting QB Seth Russell and capable backup Jarrett Stidham, contributed 100% to dropping three of their final four regular season games.

Who to watch for:

Or should I say "What to watch for."

Most previews involve the simple equation of what they did last season, and who's coming back. That's not such a simple question for the 2016 Baylor Bears.

We all know the story...HC Art Briles, out. A number or players and recruits left the embattled program. Jim Grobe is now the "acting" head coach.

Baylor football enters fall camp with around 70 scholarship athletes. The NCAA maximum for FBS is 85. The max for FCS is 63. The Bears do have 101 players listed on the fall depth chart (according to www.baylorbears.com). Despite all this, don't expect Waco to turn into "Lawrence South."

The key assistants are back, including both coordinators (DC Phil Bennett and OC Kendal Briles). The Bears return:

  • Top passer (Seth Russell...59.5% comp / 10.52 ypa / 29 TD's - 6 INT's / 189.7 rating);
  • Three of their top four rushers (Shock Linwood...1,329 yds / Johnny Jefferson...1,000 yds / Terence Williams...556 yds). That's 68% of their total rushing yards from 2015, and just over half the rushing TD's;
  • Four of their top seven receivers, including #2 KD Cannon (50 rec's for 868 yds / 17.4 ypc / 6 TD's);
  • PK Chris Callahan (83/83 XP and 8/13 FG)
  • Six of the top nine tacklers on defense, accounting for 45% of their total tackles for 2015
  • Defense returns 57% of their interceptions from 2015
But we all know that depth is key, and much is won in the trenches...
  • They return their top passer, but with Stidham's transfer, Baylor is left with a RS Freshman and two true Freshman behind Russell;
  • As we've seen at OSU, good running backs mean nothing if the offensive line can't open holes. Since finding out about this position group is challenging, I reached out to Sean Cordy, Baylor and Big 12 contributor for TodaysU.com:

    The offensive line is plastered with questions. Last year was a true blessing for Baylor having a line chock full of experience and all-conference talent. That's all gone except for the man holding it all together in the middle, Kyle Fuller. He's a fifth-year senior (third-year starter). Spencer Drango may have got more attention as the blindside, but Fuller's athleticism keeping the line moving at Baylor speed has been integral. Other than him, it's anyone's guess, especially with the recent suspension of Rami Hammad at right guard. But ultimately, Baylor's system has made its O-line, not the other way around.

  • They return their #2 receiver, but nobody else coming back had more than 11 catches in 2015;
  • They return six of the top nine tacklers on defense, but only return 42% of their tackles for loss and 30% of their sacks;
  • Only 21 players return on defense that recorded at least one tackle in 2015, and many of those were on special teams;
  • Of the top 20 returning tacklers, only four are defensive lineman, and only one of them recorded more than seven tackles (KJ Smith, 23);
Last meeting:

After hammering TCU and rising to #4 in the country, the Cowboys were beaten into submission by Baylor's third string QB and over 300 yards rushing (OSU managed just 8 yds rushing). Not to be left out, the secondary gave up touchdowns of 39, 59, and 71 yards. Many would speculate that Glenn Spencer's unit just ran out of gas after several recent games of 90+ plays on the field. Others would argue that it was only a reality check for the overrated Pokes who, like Baylor, had taken advantage of the backloaded schedule to run up a 10-0 record.

What we will learn:

This will be about the Bears more than the Cowboys. OSU's passing game is a known entity, and we will already have learned whether or not the running game has improved. The defense will likely be similar to last season.

Baylor, however, will be on full display for the nation. This will undoubtedly be televised, and sans key injuries, the Bears will be formidable at home. Plenty of offensive weapons return, and the defense has some experience in the back seven. The questions up front might not be an issue if Gundy and Company can't figure out how to threaten their defense running the ball.

OSU's defense won't be gassed, however, and look stout in the trenches, so might be a solid match for Baylor's running game, especially if the Bears' young offensive line struggles.

If the Cowboys deliver a stomping in Waco, that could be a huge sign for the rest of the season.

Prediction: Baylor 35 - OSU 31

It's the conference opener, so both teams should be fired up.

Baylor, while a little undermanned, will be fielding plenty of talent and a chip on their shoulder, and should be generally healthy this early in the season. The core of the program is still in tact. Until proven otherwise, OSU doesn't have a functioning running game, which takes the pressure off the Bear's inexperienced defensive line.

And yes, I'm being pessimistic so that I'm not completely decimated if they do, in fact, lose. I just can't help myself.