2015 CFB Preview – Baylor

 
   

You’ll have to forgive Baylor if it comes into the season with a wee bit of a chip on its shoulder.

By Pete Fiutak | @PeteFiutak

It’s not like the 2014 season was any sort of a fluke, but the perception didn’t help that it’s still Baylor – the program that spent years trying to win a Big 12 conference game, and the perennial doormat that some had said needed to be politely shoved out of the league.

Would being named Oklahoma or Texas have made a difference in the College Football Playoff hunt? Probably not, considering the other four choices were relatively obvious – especially in hindsight – but that doesn’t ease the pain of being the Power 5 conference champion left without a chair after the other four had a seat.

But it’s time to start looking at Baylor differently. This might be a smallish school compared to some of the public monsters in the conference and in the hunt for a top four slot, but under Art Briles it proved it can sustain football excellence at a high level, and it’s not going away any time soon.

That 4-8 2009 season seems like a long, long time ago.

Since then, Baylor has come up with five straight winning seasons for the first time since going on a run from 1935 to 1939, while pulling off ten wins or more three times in the past four seasons. This is a legitimate powerhouse now that might start to get more benefits of the doubt.

No, it didn’t deserve to knock out Ohio State or Florida State from the CFP four – the Big 12 was mediocre and the Bears failed to play a non-conference game against a team with a pulse – but everything is in place to be right there in the mix again. This time, the team might get the right breaks to go along with the high-octane production.

18 starters in all return including a loaded stable of running backs, one of the nation’s most dangerous receiving corps, and a defense that never received enough attention last season, but will this year.

Even more than that, Baylor is showing the ultimate sign of a good program – it’s reloading now.

The offense has worked with Robert Griffin III, Bryce Petty and Nick Florence under center, and it’ll keep on roaring now that Petty is gone.

Star receivers Antwan Goodley and Levi Norwood are done, and it doesn’t matter.

Baylor is able to fill in the parts to fit the system, and now, more than ever, it’s a cool place to go – Briles has built it, and the recruits are coming. The result is that Baylor is one of the big boys.

It doesn’t matter than Oklahoma and Texas should be stronger, and another good TCU team and a solid Kansas State shouldn’t make a difference, either. Baylor is good enough now to win no matter what, and it’s good enough to legitimately demand to be in the playoff with another season like 2014.

Yeah, Baylor really is that good.

What You Need To Know About The Offense: Here we go again. The Bears finished No. 1 in the nation in total offense and scoring thanks to the high-octane passing game and a strong, decisive rushing attack. All-star tackle Spencer Drango leads a strong, veteran line with four senior starters paving the way for All-Big-12 RB Shock Linwood and a dangerous backfield. The receiving corps is devastating with Corey Coleman and KD Cannon forming one of the nation’s best 1-2 punches, and there’s more pass catching talent where they came from. The spotlight, though, is at quarterback where Seth Russell appears ready to take over for Bryce Petty the Next QB Up in the system. While Russell isn’t the same passer as Petty, he has 4.5 speed and can add a different element to the mix. Be shocked if this isn’t one of the nation’s five best offenses.

What You Need To Know About The Defense: While everyone likes the flash and dash of the offense, defensive coordinator Phil Bennett is putting together a D that’s every bit the killer. The secondary in the 4-2-5 alignment is a little bit of a question mark with some banged up players returning to a group that was lit up like a Christmas tree over the second half of the season. Fortunately, the phenomenal defensive line is going to get behind the line and to the quarterback early and often. Shawn Oakman is one of college football’s most intimidating ends, while the interior combination of Andrew Billings and Beau Blackshear is among the best in the Big 12. Taylor Young is growing into a special linebacker who should earn all-star honors as a do-it-all playmaker on the outside.

What to watch for on offense: The quarterback situation will be more than fine with Seth Russell taking over, and with some of the most dangerous skill players in college football, the big numbers aren’t going to slow down. Corey Coleman, K.D. Cannon and Jay Lee are the explosive, talented starters, but it’s a really, really deep group with Ishmael Zamora a 6-4, 220-pound budding star and 5-11, 165-pound redshirt freshman Chris Platt a potentially devastating inside receiver. Throw in the running back combination of Shock Linwood, Johnny Jefferson and Devin Chafin, and the offense that finished first in the nation in total yards and scoring could be even stronger.

What to watch for on defense: The pass rush should be devastating, and it might need to be. The secondary is the team’s one big X factor, and it’s going to be under attack against offense after offense trying to keep up the pace. The return of Shawn Oakman for another year is a huge boost after leading the team with 11 sacks, but the pressure comes from all spots. 34 of the 37 sacks and 79 of the 94 tackles for loss are back on a defense that quietly finished 16th in the nation against the run and allowed 382 total yards per game – expect even more production.

The team will be far better if … the penalties slow down. Offensive penalties don’t matter too much when the yards are coming in waves, but even so, it would be nice if Baylor wasn’t among the worst teams in the nation in penalties. The Bears were hit for ten flags or more eight times last year including a whopping 18 for 215 yards in the loss to West Virginia and 11 more for 105 yards in the loss to Michigan State. The one other game with more than 100 penalty yards was a 12-sin, 117-yard day in the close call shootout to TCU. The Fiesta Bowl loss to UCF the season before? 17 penalties for 135 yards.

The schedule: Baylor was burned last season by not playing anyone in its non-conference schedule. This year is no different with a trip down the road to SMU and a home game against Rice qualifying as the big games outside of the Big 12.
– There’s no excuse not to rip through the first half of the schedule with Texas Tech like a home game in Arlington leading to a Big 12 kickoff of three home games – sort of – in the first four with the one trip to Kansas.
– Not only is the showdown against TCU in Fort Worth, but it comes just six days after the road trip at Oklahoma State.
– The second half of the season is nasty. There’s a week off to get ready for it, but with three road games in four weeks going to Kansas State, Oklahoma State and TCU, and hosting Oklahoma, it’s going to be a battle.
– WATCH OUT FOR … West Virginia. It might be a revenge game, but the Mountaineers should have the firepower to keep up the pace. Coming off two games away from Waco, the Bears will be the heavy favorite, but it’s a dangerous game.

Best offensive player: Senior OT Spencer Drango. Receivers Corey Coleman and K.D. Cannon will get the publicity, and QB Seth Russell will be the star, but the true best offensive cog is up front. The veteran blocker has been one of the biggest keys to the puzzle over the last few years, and coming back for another year means the pass protection on the left side should be terrific again. A likely first round NFL pick had he left this year, he’s reliable, consistent, and in the mix for all the big awards.

Best defensive player: Senior DE Shawn Oakman. If you disagree, he will find you and destroy you. At 6-9 and 280 pounds with the rolled up jersey and six-pack abs, the Twitter sensation is among the nation’s most intimidating players in college football – he’s also one of the best. The former Penn State Nittany Lion leads a terrific defensive front that should be dominant at times, especially with the way he can get into the backfield on a regular basis. Good at getting behind the line in 2013, he cranked things up to another level last year and turned into a more complete defensive player with size, speed and toughness.

Key player to a successful season: Junior S Orion Stewart. There’s talent in the defensive backfield, but it has to be tighter. The other issue is health with a slew of key parts missing this spring, including Stewart. He’s a decent all-around player and a good tackler, but now he needs to be a leader and star for a secondary that got ripped up for 264 yards per game, getting bombed on for 281 yards or more seven times in the final eight games. Stewart came up with 82 tackles and four picks, but he’ll have to be more of a force in the deep safety role.

The season will be a success if … Baylor goes to the College Football Playoff. After getting so achingly close last season, and with 18 starters returning and good replacements for the lost parts, anything less than a spot in the big four will seem like a massive disappointment. The team might not be good enough to go unbeaten, but with Oklahoma and Texas at home, if it can win two of the three road games at Kansas State, Oklahoma State and TCU to get to 11-1, this year, that might get it done.

Key game: Nov. 27 at TCU. The worst part about dealing with the loaded Horned Frogs is the timing. Not only is the game on the road late in the season, but it’s the third road game in four weeks and coming six days after on Thanksgiving weekend. There’s no way the game could be as strong and amazing as last year’s 61-58 classic Bear win, but it should go a long way to determining the Big 12 championship.

2014 Fun Stats:
– First Quarter Scoring: Baylor 196 – Opponents 70
– Fourth Down Conversions: Baylor 25-of-34 (74%) – Opponents 6-of-24 (25%)
– Rushing Touchdowns: Baylor 43 – Opponents 17

Players You Need To Know

1. OT Spencer Drango, Sr.
One of the nation’s best all-around blockers and a first round draft pick next year – he would’ve been one this season had he taken off early – he’s the star pass protector for an offense that threw the ball 519 times. At 6-6 and 310 pounds he has the size, and he has the feet to protect the blindside, but he’s at his best when he’s able to line up and blast away for the running game. While he’s been a reliable starter over the last three years, he got dinged up late in 2013 with a back injury and missed the late part of the season. Last year he was right and did a tremendous job as an All-American at left tackle. He might project to be a Pro Bowl-caliber right tackle at the next level, but for now he’s as technically sound as they come.

2. DE Shawn Oakman, Sr.
The former Penn State transfer was solid for the Baylor line right away in 2013 making 33 tackles with two sacks and a team-leading 12.5 tackles for loss, and then last year he took his game to a whole other level. With a freakish combination of 6-9, 280-pound size and tremendous athleticism, he’s a huge presence on the end with a tough frame to get around and nice toughness against the run making 51 tackles with 11 tacks and 19.5 tackles for loss. Unlike two years ago, he was tremendous at the end of last season with five of his sacks coming in the final four games. It’s all there to be a top ten overall draft pick, and now the spotlight is on to be one of college football’s breakout national stars.

3. NT Andrew Billings, Jr.
It’s hard to get too much attention as a nose tackle on a team with the nation’s best offense and on a line with a defensive end like Shawn Oakman, but Billings is still making a name for himself as a top-shelf pro prospect with tremendous quickness and athleticism in a 6-2, 300-pound body. The anchor against the run, he came up with 37 tackles in the interior and was terrific at getting behind the line with two sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss on the way to an All-Big 12 campaign. A terrific recruit for the program, he has all the tools with the strength to go along with the movement, and now it’s salary drive time as a possible early NFL entry.

4. RB Shock Linwood, Jr.
A good part of a rotation two years ago with Lache Seastrunk, he averaged close to seven yards per carry with 881 yards and eight scores. Last year he got the chance to become the main man, and he showed what he could do tearing off 1,252 yards and 16 touchdowns. He wasn’t nearly as explosive averaging 4.99 yards per carry, but it was good enough to earn All-Big 12 honors. A compact 5-9 and 200 pounds, he has the physical toughness to barrel his way for tough yards, and the speed to blow up when in the clear. While he’s not much of a receiver, that’s not his job, used more as a workhorse who carried the ball 20 times or more seven times highlighted by a 178-yard day on 29 carries against TCU. He doesn’t have to carry the entire workload, but he can do it if needed to.

5. WR Corey Coleman, Jr.
Antwan Goodley and Levi Norwood came into last season as the team’s top receiving stars, but Coleman was the one who took over and became the main man with a team-leading 64 catches for 1,119 yards and 11 scores despite missing the first three games of the season with a hamstring injury. Also used as a kick returner and a runner, he’s dangerous no matter how he gets the ball in his hands with a touchdown run against Oklahoma to go along with 15 catches for 224 yards and a score. Steady, explosive, and devastating on the inside, he looks the part of a No. 1 target. One of the team’s best athletes on a team full of athletes, he has sub 4.4 speed in a 5-11, 190-pound frame with the ability to jump out of the stadium.

6. WR KD Cannon, Soph.
The 6-0, 175-pounder is more than just a running mate to the other top Baylor targets – he might deserve to be considered among the most talented receivers the program has ever had. A superstar recruit with track star speed, elite leaping ability, he produced right out of the gate finishing second on the team with 1,030 receiving yards with eight touchdowns on 58 catches, averaging 17.8 yards per grab. While his production tailed off – he managed just 20 catches for a total of 182 yards and no scores over a six-game stretch to close out the regular season – but he dominated Michigan State for 197 yards and two touchdowns on eight grabs. Expect him to be among the nation’s top deep threats.

7. DT Beau Blackshear, Sr.
Part nose tackle, part defensive tackle, the 6-4, 300-pound veteran can work anywhere on the inside and produce. He was good in 2013 with 33 tackles and 2.5 sacks, but last year he turned into even more of a factor with 44 tackles with 4.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss. Quick off the ball and strong, he beats up single blockers with the other parts of the line getting more of the offensive focus, and he can hold his own when run at. While he’s not a top pro prospect, he has next-level potential because of his versatility and all-around skills. This year he should be in the mix for all-star honors on a great line.

8. QB Seth Russell, Jr.
Next. The 6-3, 215-pounder has waited his turn, and now he’ll be the one who gets to put up massive numbers after completing 57% of his throws for 804 yards and eight scores with a pick, and running for 185 yards and three touchdowns when he got his chances. He stepped in early for a dinged up Bryce Petty to hit up Northwestern State for 438 yards and five scores, but now it’s his gig. The combination of big young bombers Chris Johnson and Jarrett Stidham are going to keep pushing, but Russell has the time in the system and the skills to be fantastic. He might not be RGIII running the ball, but he has wide receiver speed and special athleticism to go along with the arm and passing ability.

9. LB Taylor Young, Soph.
With Bryce Hager gone, Young is the new start of the linebacking corps after finishing second on the team with 91 tackles in his freshman season. He’s not all that big at 5-10 and 225 pounds, but he’s fast behind the line with four sacks and eight tackles for loss after being thrown into the fire. While he’s a natural weakside defender, he might move around with junior Aivion Edwards past his ankle injury and needing to find a spot on the field. After coming up with 13 tackles in the regular season finale against Kansas State and coming up with 15 stops against Michigan State, Young is too good to not be among the defense’s featured stars.

10. TE Tre’von Armstead, Jr.
6-7, 410-pound LaQuan McGowan will be the national focus at tight end, but it’s Armstead who has the potential to become truly special. At 6-6 and 270 pounds, he’s a big-time blocker with a great frame, and even though he only caught five passes for 62 yards and a score, he has the ability to work as a receiver. Good enough to earn All-Big 12 honors, expect him to be a bigger part of the attack with speed and athleticism to go along with his bulk.

Head Coach: Art Briles
8th year: 55-34
13th year: 89-62

Schedule
Sept. 4 at SMU
Sept. 12 Lamar
Sept. 19 OPEN DATE
Sept. 26 Rice
Oct. 3 Texas Tech (in Arlington)
Oct. 10 at Kansas
Oct. 17 West Virginia
Oct. 24 Iowa State
Oct. 31 OPEN DATE
Nov. 5 at Kansas State
Nov. 14 Oklahoma
Nov. 21 at Oklahoma State
Nov. 27 at TCU
Dec. 5 Texas
Ten Best Baylor Players
1. OT Spencer Drango, Sr.
2. DE Shawn Oakman, Sr.
3. NT Andrew Billings, Jr.
4. RB Shock Linwood, Jr.
5. WR Corey Coleman, Jr.
6. WR KD Cannon, Soph.
7. WR KD Cannon, Soph.
8. QB Seth Russell, Jr.
9. LB Taylor Young, Soph.
10. TE Tre’von Armstead, Jr.