Baylor is a trendy dark horse pick in the Big 12 for this coming year. Perhaps not as a champion but at least as a contender. In my estimation the group they have to beat out for that consists of Texas Tech, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, TCU, Oklahoma, and Texas. I’m already ready to rule out Kansas, West Virginia, and Kansas State from having any hope of competing for a spot in the title game.
That’s still a lot of teams for Baylor to jump. The thinking behind the Baylor pick is strong and straightforward, they have a good QB in Charlie Brewer who will be a junior and experienced starter heading into 2019. Of course the other six teams I listed as being plausible title game participants also have QBs on the roster that have played a fair amount of football (Dru Brown started a year in Hawaii, Mike Collins played in eight games last year at TCU). But Brewer is generally considered an upper echelon QB around the league and having quality and experience at QB tends to result in winning decision-making and play-making in the crucial moments of games.
But what I can’t shake about Baylor is how putrid Matt Rhule and Phil Snow’s defenses have been. Their entire approach seems flawed and it’s hard to have confidence that they won’t continue to gift points to opponents that makes it difficult to get over the hump.
A quick survey through the 2018 season shows the Bears yielding back-breaking plays through busts in all of their losses.
Six for six
Against Duke? They gave up this 28-yard TD pass
Typical sucker play off the swing screen look and pump fake. Baylor is in cover 1 but no one picks up the slot as he runs a wheel route off the fake block. The guy that he allows to slip by him is like “hoo boy, I’m about to make a play!” Whenever a team scores a long TD on a misdirection play you can usually find that guy.
Oklahoma, 86 yard shallow cross score to CeeDee Lamb
The Bears gave up six TDs of 30 yards or more against Oklahoma, but this one really stood out to me because they allowed Lamb to basically jog for 86 yards and six points when the game was still competitive. I couldn’t even include the whole run because it takes too long to watch Lamb complete his journey to the goal line. The Bears bring a fire zone and the middle hole player takes forever to find his guy while the seam player is trying to trade off Lamb to him.
I’m slowly coming to think that you just shouldn’t run fire zones as a main part of your defense in the Big 12. The offenses get the ball out too quickly, the support isn’t enough, you often teams give up more big play scores with fire zones than they land game-changing positive plays.
Texas, 44-yard fade to Collin Johnson
Baylor actually got burned a number of times by Texas in this game when they got caught playing Tampa-2 against run plays. Their only score though was this play, that wasn’t a bust so much as a combination of a bad call and a bad play. First of all, for Baylor to leave Johnson in zero coverage, even against Derrek Thomas, was an iffy decision. Secondly, Derrek basically gives up on the play to complain to the officials wanting an OPI call, which is never a good look.
Baylor used this “steal” or “solo” coverage a lot to shade the boundary safety to help to the field and leave the backside corner in man coverage.
West Virginia, 53-yard pass to Gary Jennings
The Bears gave up a long TD pass to David Sills in this one (no great crime) in which the corner on him dove helplessly at him and ended up taking out the safety who had an angle in pursuit. It was a pitiful play, but this one is more to the point.
The safety and sam tried to communicate the motion to the other side of the formation but no one picked Jennings up. Touchdown.
Iowa State, 11-yard pass to Deshaunte Jones
Only 11 yards out but they really messed this one up. They’re playing Iowa State’s own inverted Tampa-2 coverage, except look how shallow Verkedric Vaughns plays it as the middle safety. The whole point of the coverage is to deny the middle.
TCU, 37-yard sweep to Jalen Reagor
Look, I know it’s 4th and 1 and that you had such poor DE play that you had to move James Lynch to the position…but you had one job. Don’t let Jalen Reagor beat you. He had a long TD on a tunnel screen that was a combination of under zealous pursuit and over zealous pursuit by the Bears and then this play, that was 14 points in a 16-9 defeat. They also gave up a key first down on a Grayson Muehlstein zone-read keeper because he beat Lynch to the edge.
Six losses on the year and all of them included some bad defense plays where by assignment bust or call they gave away easy points to the other team. It’s tough enough to stop Big 12 offenses without giving away points.
Rhules for winning in the Big 12
Rhule has a three-part strategy for building Baylor into a competitive team in the Big 12.
Part 1: Recruit raw talents, mold them into football players with NFL ability.
Part 2: Stand out with a capacity for playing punishing, physical ball up front on offense.
Part 3: Play great defense, make opponents prepare for multiple looks and defenses.
Part one has gone great, at least they’ve not struggled to bring tons of speed and length into Waco, we haven’t seen much of it materialize into football stardom yet but things seem to be on track. They’ve also supplemented the roster with transfers.
Part two has been coming along on a reasonable timeline. They had a solid I-Formation package with Jalen Hurd last year and got to a point where they were building around tight zone with a sturdy TE and their senior right side of G Blake Blackmar (6-5, 330) and T Pat Lawrence (6-6, 310).
Part three, the main reason Rhule stood out as a great hire, has been a total misfire. The problem has come from trying to be a team that can run multiple fronts, multiple coverages, and do it all from multiple packages in the Big 12. Even Alabama starts to commit busts and unravel when they face HUNH spread teams that attack their packages’ mental fortitude with pace and precision.
You can’t possibly practice all of your difference tactics as much as the offense has practiced their method for beating them. What’s more, with the HUNH spread and smart deployment of their skill players, offenses can generally force you to be pretty simple and create easy reads for the QB even as the defense is trying to execute alternate methods for handling route distributions.
Baylor has a possible answer on campus, former HS head coach Joey McGuire has been moved to defense after proving his quality on the recruiting trail and in building a strong TE room for the Bear offense. It’s a good bet that McGuire, who specialized in defense at Cedar Hill HS. Go watch one of his HS teams and it’s clear they could handle tempo and movement better than these Baylor teams.
Currently he’s the AHC (perhaps just to justify a salary increase) and has been put in charge of trying to get their DE play up to snuff so they don’t have to use potential star DT James Lynch there in 2019. Having impactful DEs would help this unit a lot, but it’s hard to see the strategy of recruiting raw athletes and turning them into great football players panning out if they want to also make having the most tactically complex unit on the field part of that strategy.
If the Bears don’t break through in 2019 and finish with another 6-7 win season, best bet is that defense is to blame and they’re still giving away too many freebies to realize part three of the Rhule strategy.