I’m willing to admit I was wrong about Matt Rhule. When Baylor hired Rhule after the horrific end to the Briles era and the interim Jim Grobe, I thought the hire was a bridge too far from what made the Bears a national contender. Rhule, after all, is a Jersey guy, he played at Penn State, he coached at Temple. He couldn’t find his way from Dallas to Waco if you pointed him south.
That’s a six-win improvement over a 1-11 debut. Baylor fans preached patience when the administration brought Rhule in, but losses to Liberty, UTSA, and a lone win over lowly Kansas, had everyone wondering if they’d misplaced their hope and hired the wrong guy. As an outsider, I thought the same thing. I was wrong. Rhule, given a seven-year contract to make Baylor respectable again, turned it around in year two with a bowl win over Vandy in Houston, and a seven-win season.
Rhule showed why the Bear administration brought a Jersey guy to Waco. In 2019, the Bears have a chance to climb some lofty rungs on the Big 12 ladder.
It might be too simple to say Baylor struggled against good teams, but that seems to be the case. When that’s the case, it’s a talent issue as much as anything related to scheme or gameday decision making. Given the Bears recruiting limitations in 2015 and 2016, you can understand a lack of upperclassmen talent.
The offense was Jekyll and Hyde. Against the five opponents who ended the season with losing records, the Bruins averaged 36 points a game, nearly 200 yards rushing, and 329 yards passing. Against the seven teams with winning records, Baylor’s numbers fell to 21 points a game, 129 yards rushing, and 258 yards passing. To make matters worse, against winning squads, Baylor finished minus ten in turnover ratio.
|Team||Rush Yards / Att (Nat'l Rank)||Passer Rating||Pass Att / Sack||Avg TOP (min)|
|Baylor||4.46 (63)||135.62 (59)||13.36 (91)||32.45 (20)|
Rhule, and his staff are narrowing the talent gap. That starts by acquiring the pieces to build a physical, run-first offense. Because of line issues, the Bears struggled to pull that bully-ball offense off.The Bear allowed a league-worst 93 tackles for loss and 39 sacks. The TFL number places them 121st in the FBS. In league, their yards per rush dropped from a season average of 4.38 to less than three yards per carry. Against those ranked opponents, the running game abandoned them entirely (2.29).
The good news is two-fold; first, Baylor returns its top three rushers from 2018. John Lovett, JaMycal Hasty, and Tristan Ebner all averaged better than five yards per carry. Second, you can see the physicality Rhule promised in fits and starts. Two years ago, Baylor called all hands on deck to fit a two-deep for their offensive line. Now thru coaching and intentional recruiting efforts, the Bears will suit up fifteen scholarship lineman and introduce real competition to the offensive front. That will fuel the engine for the rushing game that Rhule’s offense will rely on.
As for pass catchers, Baylor must find contributors to fill the void left by leading pass catcher and Swiss Army knife Jalen Hurd. The former Tennessee running back turned himself into an All-League player. Of Baylor’s 148 passes of ten-plus yards, Hurd caught a third. He’s off trying to make an NFL roster.
Denzel Mims returns after a 55 catch season, down from 61 in 2017, but he’s become one of the best deep threats in the league, and one of just three 1,000 yard receiver returning. He and Chris Platt will keep defensive coordinators on Red Bull for hours. Platt, granted a sixth year of eligibility, is a straight line burner. Sophomore Tyquan Thornton flashed last season as a true freshman, then, as freshman tend to do, he disappeared, but his upside is significant.
The Bears will run everything through their run game and the game management of Charlie Brewer. Sometimes we talk about game management like it’s a good thing, sometimes a game manager places a ceiling on an offense. I think the latter applies to Brewer.
In 2018, the usually deadly accurate Brewer slid from a 68% completion rate in 2017 to a 61% completion rate. His overall QB rating dropped below 140.
In games against programs with winning records, Brewer’s completion percentage dropped to 56%. Against the three ranked opponents on Baylor’s record, it dropped to 55%. In those five games against winning programs, Brewer threw for less than 200 yards per game. Against opponents with a losing record, he threw for over 300 yards per contest. Overall his yards per attempt fell into the 59th percentile, and his interception rate hit just about dead average, in the 54th percentile.
I believe Brewer can be an upper-echelon Big 12 quarterback. Last year’s accuracy decline is the first time I’ve seen him struggle; remember, Brewer completed 77% of his throws as a high school senior. He’s a willing runner, he’s smart, and if he can get his accuracy back, he should be back on track. He went through a stretch in 2018 (Texas, West Virginia, and Oklahoma State) where he struggled. Not until facing that ever generous Texas Tech defense to find a course correction.
In the midst of all that, Baylor coaches benched him (for half of West Virginia and the first half of Okie State). In his next start, against TCU, the crisis of confidence and a Gary Patterson defense affected Brewer again. Against Tech and Vandy to end the season, Brewer was back, completing 67% of his throws for a combined 692 yards with five touchdowns.
If Baylor’s going to climb those rungs I referenced before; Brewer has to play at a higher level against the better teams in the Big 12. He’ll have more help in 2019.
*We track percentile ranks among quarterbacks with 100 or more attempts in a given season. We take statistics like yardage accounted for, touchdowns per play, completion percentage, yardage per attempt, yardage per play, plus sack and interception avoidance and put them into a visual of efficiency and explosiveness. The bigger the radar area, the better the player performed.
Phil Snow’s unit made an incremental improvement in 2018, moving from 9th in the Big 12 to seventh in total defense. The most significant jump came in pass defense where the Bears held opposing offenses to a 60% completion percentage, a six percentage point improvement. The struggle continues to be third down where Baylor lets teams off the hook 44% of the time. The Bears also
Baylor wants to move to a 33 Stack look, with three down, three linebackers, and five defensive backs. The defense allows a lot of speed on the field, distributes run fits equally among several hybrid players, and allows pressure to come from anywhere on the chalkboard. I love an odd-man front, especially against spread teams. West Virginia’s Tony Gibson stymied the league with his stack
|Team||Opp Rush Yards / Att (Nat'l Rank)||Opp Passer Rating||Opp Pts / Poss||Opp 3rd Down Conv.|
|Baylor||5.52 (122)||140.47 (95)||2.51 (105)||44.07 (108)|
Clay Johnston is the best linebacker you’ve never heard of. Johnston made 99 stops last year including a gaudy 13 tackles a game in four November contests. Terrel Bernard and Blake Lynch return at linebacker as well, Lynch seems to have a home there after years of switching positions more than a Clinton.
Lynch makes a lot of sense at the hybrid defensive end/linebacker or “Jack” position as some coordinators call it. He’s big enough to fit the run, fast enough to cover, and rangy enough to climb into a quarterback’s kitchen and make himself at home.
Up front the Bears need to improve against the run, where they allowed 5.4 yards a pop good enough for ninth in a league, apologies to Bob Bowlsby, not exactly known for stellar rush defense. Freshman All-American James Lynch proved he was not susceptible to a sophomore slump, earning second-team All-Big 12 for his efforts. He’s a must-have because he can move inside to tackle or outside to end. He plays with his hair on fire. They’ll miss Ira Lewis and his 32 career starts, but Bravion Roy and James Lockhart are back and the defensive front, like linebacker, is a strength.
I saw Gabe Hall play for Waller High School last season and that dude is a manchild at 6-5, 295. Rhule’s recruiting in that critical defensive line area is exhibit one showing he’s making headway in the living rooms across the state. The Bears are getting nasty on the line of scrimmage again.
The secondary loses two starters including safety Verkedric Vaughns but returns up-and-coming corner Raleigh Texada, an Honorable Mention All-League performer. Jameson Houston saw some valuable playing time last year. If Grayland Arnold can come back after suffering a season-ending injury in 2018, the Bears will have a better corner pair and depth than in 2018.
Phil Snow is a bit of a wizard on defense; when you then you’ve figured him out, he pulls something else out of his hat. If Baylor can get more speed on the field, he should have fun letting it run.
Isaac Power, an excellent name for a punter, punted once last year. That punt went 47 yards, so if you’re into small sample sizes, Baylor should be fine. At kicker, Connor Martin made fifteen of his 24 attempts with a long of 50. John Mayers filled-in in the Texas Bowl as made all three extra points attempted.
Galitz also handled kickoffs, putting 57% out for touchbacks. Jay Sedwick kicked off sixteen times with a touchback percentage of 42%.
Baylor went with punt return by committee last season, nine players catching at least one punt. The committee wasn’t effective, averaging 6.5 yards per return. Freshman Josh Fleeks took the bulk of kickoffs, with an eighteen-yard average.
Baylor has a downright Brilesian soft non-conference schedule, with Round Up hero Colby Carthel and SFA coming in week one. Then Baylor welcomes what will be an offensively deficient UTSA. Finally, a Rice team that doesn’t even have studs up on its rebuild.
Then stuff gets real.
The games to circle are that Iowa State/Kansas State swing and the Revivalry contest at TCU. I think all the talk about Iowa State is a bit premature. I also remember the last time Bill Snyder retired and how quickly Kansas State became mediocre Kansas State quickly. I think Baylor loses one of those two; I’m picking the trip to Manhattan. If, however, Baylor wins both, watch out, nine or ten wins are on the table. If they lose both, hold on, because it’ll be another six-win season.
I think TCU is ripe in 2019. For the second year in a row, they lack a definitive quarterback. The Frog defense suffered some significant losses, including Ben Banogu who single-handedly destroyed Baylor’s offense last season. If you’re Matt Rhule, you have to beat the Baylor foil, Gary Patterson.
|8/31/19||SFA||Southland||W||Colby Carthel's Lumberjack rebuild comes to Waco.|
|9/7/19||UTSA||CUSA||W||The 'Runners aren't the same team that won in 2017.|
|9/21/19||at Rice||CUSA||W||A good old fashioned SWC beatdown.|
|9/28/19||Iowa State||Big 12||L||The first test comes in a winnable game vs. the 'Clones.|
|10/5/19||at Kansas State||Big 12||W||Trips to the Little Apple ain't easy.|
|10/12/19||Texas Tech||Big 12||W||First time this game's been on a campus since 2008.|
|10/19/19||at Ok State||Big 12||L||Bears have won four of five in the series.|
|10/31/19||West Virginia||Big 12||W||Let's all try and forget last year's trip to Morgantown.|
|11/9/19||at TCU||Big 12||W||Circle this one for both programs.|
|11/16/19||Oklahoma||Big 12||L||Start of a two game stretch against the Big Boys.|
|11/23/19||Texas||Big 12||L||Horns have won four straight in the series.|
|11/30/19||at Kansas||Big 12||W||Baylor vs. Kansas, a tradition unlike any other.|
Checking Our Work
So you’re asking yourself, yeah, but what do you know? You’re right, not much, so in the interest of full disclosure, let’s look at our predicted wins in years past vs. the actual wins. We hang our hat on transparency and grammatical indifference.