If you haven't guessed, I'll be doing a weekly feature where I shine the spotlight that sits atop the Nickel Rover base of operations (imagine Micro Machines Night Attack) upon our various league foes.
This week, I choose Baylor to withstand my barrage of spring-loaded plastic missiles. How are those Bears doing in the post-RG3 world?
If you watched them play last year, you should be aware that they fielded one of the 5 greatest offenses in league history, arguably the most explosive.
Their 3 defeats against KSU, A&M, and OSU were largely the result of giving up 210, 266, and 327 rushing yards respectively while posting an overall turnover margin of -6 for those games.
RGIII roasted those teams as he did everyone else with OSU the only qualifier for a "down game" in which he had a stat line that went 33-50, 425 yards, 1 TD pass, 2 INTs, 1 rushing TD, and 8.5 yards per attempt.
The trick to their system revolved around simple spread principles, much like Urban Meyer or Chip Kelly's offenses. This isn't the Air Raid where spread formations are used to achieve specific strategic aims, the strategic aim is to spread people out. They used wide splits, lightning fast receivers removed far off the ball (3 receivers with 800 yards or more), a Power back (Ganaway), and of course RGIII.
This is more of a "spread-to-run" system that is ultimately seeking to punish teams with play-action like many traditional offenses. Hypothetically, if you could handle their Zone and Power running game, you could eliminate their play-action passes that devastated everyone in the league. The trick was getting hats in the box against the run with sprinters lined up outside, a track-star QB who could run the ball, and a 240 pound running back who blew through arm-tackles all year en route to a 1500 yard, 6.2 YPC season.
This year they their bowling ball RB, the best receiver, and the demi-god who put on a clinic in executing both the spread and play-action offense. I suspect the offensive line will be more or less as solid as last year, and they return enough of last year's cast in the receiving corp where this doesn't seem to be the weakness either.
Very often a seemingly immortal foe in sports will become completely unraveled if you pull away the right jenga piece and I suspect this has happened in Waco this season. QB Nick Florence has proven to be a pretty capable player and they have him executing the same play-action throws that tortured secondaries last year.
However, without the running game, everything comes apart. If you don't need to sneak defensive backs into the box to outnumber the run and account for the QB, then all the speed at WR for Baylor becomes far less problematic. These guys aren't Ryan Broyles or Jordan Shipley, they don't burn you running every route in the book with precision and head fakes, they just run past you.
Starting back Jared Salubi has run for 5.8 yards per carry thus far against SMU and Sam Houston St, including a 17 carry-80 yard performance against the Bearkats that won't keep Diaz or Stoops up at night. They have other options, including 220 pound short-yardage back Glasco Martin and our old friend Lache Seastrunk, but Salubi is the man for now.
They've been willing to use Florence in the running game to good effect (8.7 yards per carry) but are they willing to give him 8 carries per game in league play? What will those numbers look like with Kenny Vaccaro or Jake Knott chasing him down?
The biggest problem for the Bears is pass-protection. Their OL was secretly vulnerable to a good pass-rush last year and both OU and UT were able to get guys in RGIII's face. Unfortunately, his footwork and ability to feel pressure, escape, and deliver perfect strikes to receivers 50 yards downfield negated this potential weakness. They also bought time with play-action.
How will Florence and the passing game hold up with 2 new OT's and a diminished running game? Even if Florence proves to be one of the better passers in the Big 12, his very solid skill set is not the treasure cove that was Griffin.
Two games into the season, their rushing numbers are about a yard better than what they averaged last year overall while their yards per pass attempt are down almost 2 yards. This suggests that defenses are prepared to make Florence and the passing game beat safeties and corners who aren't terribly concerned with the running game.
All that said, the key to another successful (8 wins) season in Waco was never going to be immediately replacing RG3. Baylor didn't play defense last season and marginal improvement there could make a huge difference. Like at QB, the effects of Art Briles improving recruiting haven't really taken hold yet here.
They have three sacks thus far, are replacing an actually solid tandem of DTs, and return a secondary that is still fairly slow at the safety position which is constantly having to help an undermanned front against the run. The linebacking corp is getting better and the secondary is probably not as bad as people guess, but without better players at DE to set the edge or rush the passer the ceiling is pretty low. They can do little better than play bend-don't-break and hope an offense can't run them over or throw interceptions.
Texas and Oklahoma can run them over and catch them at home, the odds of them taking down the 2 league giants again is less than a percentage point. West Virginia is not interception prone and also plays them at home, running game-based Iowa State also plays them at home. Their closest equal is Texas Tech, who they play in Arlington in a competition to draw the best overlooked DFW recruits.
Those 4 road games are almost certain losses while the home game against KSU and the neutral-site showdown with Tech are dubious as well. Baylor's slip from legendary Big 12 offense with horrendous defense to strong Big 12 offense with still-terrible defense should be pretty steep.
A .500 record in league play would be astounding, if they can get to 5 wins and take down some recruiting rivals like Tech, OSU, and TCU that would actually be a strong result. These guys have a pretty cool new stadium and some talented young players coming up the pipe. I do expect Baylor to rise above "perennial doormat", but what I've seen so far this year suggests an inevitable collapse.
Next week we'll examine the results of KSU vs. OU. That game could answer several major questions that are likely to determine the Big 12 race this year. They are:
1). Can Oklahoma run the football?
KSU has a very solid run defense and we've talked about how a revitalized running game in Norman would play to their personnel strengths and make yet another league title very likely.
2). Can Oklahoma stop the run?
They'll get some of their Big DTs back, and more importantly can move David King to DE on running downs. Corey Nelson doesn't seem to be playing at full-speed as a traditional linebacker yet, and Javon Harris vacillates between enforcer and open-field target.
OU's linebackers are excellent in coverage, the blitz with Wort or Nelson is very effective, the secondary is very strong up the middle and on the sidelines, and the base rush from King and Washington is strong. But before Mike Stoops can show off what he's done on the back end they get KSU and Texas in consecutive games.
Traditionally OU always plays strong run-defense so I think a direct challenge to their identity in the form of a loss in either game could really challenge their team.
3). Klein the passer
Klein's passing obviously sets the ceiling for this offense much higher. Is the KSU passing game ready to take on the better pass defenses in the conference? OU's might be the best, and they won't be afraid to make Klein beat Colvin and Hurst on the sideline.
4). KSU pass defense
It simply wasn't that great last year. They did a good job picking off passes but the pass-rush was inconsistent and the middle of the field was patrolled by whitey and vulnerable to assault. Oklahoma's OL has looked beatable by stunts and good edge rushers so Meshak Williams and Adam Davis could make a statement here.
If Landry Jones roasts them again it won't necessarily tell us too much but a strong performance might indicate that KSU is the true front-runner.
After these two teams probe and hit each other we'll have a much better idea of what the Big 12 will look like this year and where Texas is likely to end up.