Rarely has a top-level program changed so much in such a short period of time.
Baylor’s offseason derailed in the course of a few months, as an independent investigation into how the school handled sexual assault claims ultimately led to the dismissal of coach Art Briles.
Since arriving in Waco in 2008, Briles had led the Bears out of the Big 12 Conference basement to the penthouse. This season Baylor will attempt to win its third league title in the last four seasons. The Bears have won a total of 50 games over the last five seasons – prior to Briles’ arrival, Baylor had won 35 games in 12 seasons in the Big 12.
However, most analysts and experts expect Baylor to take a step back. In addition to Briles’ departure, the program lost 12 of the 24 members of a heralded 2016 recruiting class. Those who left decided that the turmoil of the coaching change and the campus crisis had irrevocably changed the program to which they had committed.
The school hired former Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe to be the acting coach this season.
“There is no real roadmap for this,” said Grobe, who took over the Baylor program May 30 and has kept Briles’ assistants on staff. “When I first met with the team, I think they were somewhat skeptical of a lot of things. I know the staff was in shock. So it’s been a journey, to be honest … I’m hopeful that we can continue to be very competitive every time out.”
The talent, especially at the offensive skill positions, should make Baylor more than competitive. In recent years, the offense has been virtually unstoppable.
Senior quarterback Seth Russell led the team to a 7-0 record in 2015 before his season ended with neck surgery. Running backs Shock Linwood and Johnny Jefferson (who has been injured during practice) and junior wide receiver K.D. Cannon are among the Big 12’s best at their positions.
“We definitely have the expectation of winning the Big 12, making it to the playoff and winning the national championship,” Russell said. “Just because we only get half of our class of freshmen doesn’t mean we’re not going to win. Most guys don’t play their first year, anyway. It’s all about motivation and we have a lot of that. We’re fighters. We’re not going to back down to anybody.”
For Baylor’s offense to maintain its prolific production, the team must find four new starters on the offensive line. Plus, that unit has just seven scholarship players.
The defense also has concerns up front: All four starters from last season are gone. Senior defensive tackle Byron Bonds was injured in preseason practice, and it’s feared he might miss the season. He’s the lone senior listed on the defensive line two-deep.
Despite the off-field issues and the lack of depth, the Bears see no reason why they can’t contend.
“We’ve been championship contenders all four years I’ve been here,” senior cornerback Ryan Reid said. “I don’t think that’s going down now. We’re getting into the whole band-of-brothers mindset. That’s what we’re shooting for. Just band together, get past it and move on with it.”
Baylor at a glance
2015: 10-3 overall, 6-3 in the Big 12, fourth
Coach: Jim Grobe (acting)
Returning starters: 5 on offense, 5 on defense
Impact players: Sr. QB Seth Russell, Sr. RB Shock Linwood, Jr. WR K.D. Cannon, Sr. WR Lynx Hawthorne, Sr. LB Aiavion Edwards, Sr. CB Ryan Reid, Sr. S Orion Stewart, Jr. K Chris Callahan
3 reasons to hope
- Baylor’s offense has plenty of playmakers with Seth Russell at quarterback, Shock Linwood at running back, and K.D. Cannon at receiver.
- Grobe has a reputation as a solid coach, and his mission is to provide stability. Also, despite the offseason tumult, the coaching staff is intact.
- Because of limited resources on the defensive line, Baylor is considering playing more of a 3-4 scheme. The Bears have good depth and experience at linebacker and in the secondary, so they’ll try to rely on those players to lead the defense.
3 reasons to worry
- The roster has been decimated by most of the 2016 recruiting class leaving for other programs, along with the attrition of players running out of eligibility and/or leaving for the NFL Draft. Baylor has just 70 players on scholarship.
- Both lines need to replace most of their starters, with only the offensive line returning a starter. The roster churn has left the offensive line with just seven scholarship players.
- Backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham decided to transfer over the summer, as did Chris Johnson, who played some QB last season. Freshman Zach Smith is Seth Russell’s backup.
Difference maker on offense: Running back Shock Linwood. The 5-foot-9, 200-pound senior gained 1,328 yards rushing, averaging 6.8 per carry. He’s had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and should become the school’s career rushing leader early in the season. Linwood and a powerful running game represent the lynchpin of Baylor’s offense.
Difference maker on defense: Linebacker Taylor Young. A freshman All-American in 2014, the 5-foot-10, 210-pound junior was also outstanding as a sophomore. He finished third on the team in tackles with 80, and 13½ of those were tackles for loss.
It’s a fact: Baylor has led the nation in total offense, scoring offense and first downs per game for each of the last three seasons.
Projected final record: 8-4. The guess here is that while the first-line talent is outstanding, the lack of depth will wind up making a difference.
|Sept. 2||Northwestern State|
|Sept. 16||at Rice|
|Sept. 24||Oklahoma State*|
|Oct. 1||at Iowa State*|
|Oct. 29||at Texas*|
|Nov. 12||at Oklahoma*|
|Nov. 19||Kansas State*|
|Nov. 25||Texas Tech* (Arlington, Texas)|
|Dec. 3||at West Virginia*|
|* – Conference game|