Last season, Baylor started the season ranked No. 4 in the AP Poll. This year the Bears clocked in at No. 23. Whether or not preseason rankings really matter (they don’t), they do provide a guide for how a team is perceived. Baylor’s ranking is a strange beast.
Considering the offensive powerhouse it has become, the ranking may be too conservative, but it could just as well be too generous, since only three starters return on defense with a new coach in town. The season hinges on how interim coach Jim Grobe operates in place of Art Briles.
Moreover, how Grobe affects Seth Russell at quarterback will determine the Bears’ final ranking.
How Russell can thrive
Last season Russell was among the top gunslingers in the nation, leading the country with 29 touchdowns, a 189.7 passer rating, and 10.5 yards per attempt through seven games before a neck injury. He was also completing 59.5 percent of his throws. Russell also added six scores on the ground thanks to his top-flight athleticism.
— Sean Giggy (@sgiggy_kwtx) August 9, 2016
Not many wide receivers can even clock in at under 4.4 seconds in the 40. Luckily for Russell, a handful of his receivers can. That’s partly how Baylor has succeeded: with blazing speed on the hash marks. As long as Grobe allows things to operate normally, Russell shouldn’t have a difficult time back under the gun.
As far as Grobe is concerned, nothing will change operationally on the offense.
“Strictly a football perspective, I think we want to continue to play fast and furious on offense,” Grobe said via the (Fort Worth) Star-Telegram. “We want to keep those same principles that Art had.”
That will be vital for a potential Heisman bid from Russell, sticking with the program he’s mastered in his four years in Waco. Corey Coleman is not back, but as shown through Baylor’s recent success, that hardly matters. It’s the system that propels its quarterback and receivers.
In 2013, Terrance Williams and his 1,832 yards and 12 touchdowns went pro. Bryce Petty stepped in and won a Big 12 title, passing for 32 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions. The following year, Tevin Reese’s reliability was gone and Petty once again repeated his success and turned K.D. Cannon and Coleman into superstars.
Now Russell has Cannon returning among other track stars in the receiver corps to keep things up. Everything else besides Briles has remained intact.
How Russell could dive
If Grobe can’t stay true to his word and does an about-face on the offense mid-season, the offense could collapse.
Though Baylor’s scheme should theoretically work with the pieces Briles handpicked to run the offense, the offensive line is not as strong as in years past and could become a liability. If Russell keeps getting hit, Grobe could shift even more of the focus to the dominant run game.
As a best case-worst case scenario, something like Grobe’s 2006 season with Wake Forest could happen. The Demon Deacons won the ACC but were a slow-operating team with a run-pass ratio of nearly 2 to 1. It would be exciting to see Grobe implement a triple-option scheme, though. Russell and his trio of running backs could really thrive, but it would be completely new for this team.
In all, there’s more evidence pointing to another big year from Russell than to the idea that he’ll fall flat on his face … as long as Grobe keeps his hands off the offense that has led the nation in scoring for three straight years. A few twists might crop up here and there, but the biggest question in Waco is just how long the Briles autopilot will last.