Cannon to the right of them,
Cannon to the left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.
-Alfred, Lord Tennyson
To say that the Baylor Bears face a difficult situation this weekend would be to fantastically underrate the gravity of the situation. Oklahoma brings in a very good, well-rounded team to Floyd-Casey Stadium this Saturday night and will probably bring another 10,000 Sooner fans with them. Let’s take a more in depth look at arguably the best team in the conference...
Cannon to the right of them: Sooner Offense.
How good has the Sooner’s offense been this year? Their 45.4 points/game and 545 yards/game are 6th and 3rd in the country, respectively. Lead by likely top 20 NFL Draft pick Landry Jones and his 152 QB rating, the Sooner passing attack’s 381 yds/game rank 3rd in the nation. Part of this has to do with how much they throw the ball, 5th most in the country at almost 46 times per game, but any offense that can maintain that sort of efficiency should be throwing early and often. Even by the more advanced statistics from Football Outsiders [FO], OU’s offense ranks in the top 20 by virtually all offensive metrics.
There is some small degree of hope here, though. Unfortunately for college football fans the FBS record holder for receptions, Ryan Broyles, tore his ACL and is done for the year. The WR had already amassed 1,157 yards and 10 TD’s this year. For a Baylor secondary that has been improving but is still below average, this is a significant boon. Leading rusher Dominique Whaley is also out for the season, but is backed up by highly recruited Brandon Williams amongst others. While OU having an extra week to prepare negates some of the advantage gained from these losses by Baylor, the chances that Baylor’s defense can stop OU at least a couple of times has now gone up.
Canon to the left of them: Sooner Special Teams
Unlike Sooner offense and defense, the Sooner special teams unit grades out as merely average, 54th nationally, by FO’s FEI Special Teams system. What tilts this seemingly innocuous aspect firmly in favor of the visiting team is how poor Baylor has been in this same department in 2011. Baylor ranks 115th overall in special teams by the same metric and, while it has improved somewhat from the completely egregious performance against TCU to start the year, Baylor ranks near the bottom of Division 1 Football in Field Goal Efficiency, Kick Return Efficiency, and Punt Efficiency (Wherefore art thou, Daniel Sepulveda?).
Cannon in front of them: Sooner Defense.
The Sooner defense does not offer as many complex sets as a 3-4 defense like that run by DeRuyter at A&M and they do not look as good in the counting defensive stats as they should due to the fast pace that their offense plays at. Still, this elite defense is the only one in the conference to allow less than 20 points/game. Stocked with highly recruited talent and developed efficiently by DC Brent Venables, this year’s squad features an excellent candidate for Big12 Defensive POY in Frank Alexander whose 7.5 sacks and 13.5 TFL rank 12th and 18th in the country, respectively. Alexander and Ronnell Lewis lead an excellent defensive front responsible for the most sacks/game in the country (3.78) and 4th most TFL/game at 8.22. The relentless pressure of A&M’s defense eventually caused RGIII to start making uncharacteristically poor decisions and visibly frustrated him. With a defense that also stops the run fairly well, one of the key factors in this game is if Baylor’s offensive line can provide Griffin enough protection to attack a secondary that was picked apart by Texas Tech’s Seth Doege, but has largely been decent outside of that one strange night in Norman.
Boldly they rode and well: Baylor Offense.
In years past, this game would have been relegated to an 11 AM time slot with a fey mood amongst the student body that would turn into a mass exodus sometime around the 3rd quarter. And yet, this year there is something different to offer, something that interests ABC enough to put the game on in primetime, something that gives Baylor fans hope that their team will at least look competitive for most of the game. That something is the Baylor offense, lead by Heisman candidate Robert Griffin III. RGIII exploits are well known amongst Baylor Bears and CFB fans alike, but I wanted to take a moment to point out that this offense is quite talented even outside of their leader. An offensive line that features one or two likely future professional players and one that Art Briles has called the best in his time at Baylor (high praise considering 3 guys picked in the Top 3 rounds of the NFL draft recently). A receiving corps that is talented and deep despite the loss of Josh Gordon in the offseason and potentially has a couple of future NFL players on it as well. Throw in an improved Terrance Ganaway and his near 100 yards/game and we see a very balanced offense with good depth that should score points even against the Sooners defense.
Baylor is a 14.5 point underdog at home this weekend and, while I would not personally wager any money on them pulling out a win, the quality of RGIII and the offense is good enough that if the other units can merely elevate themselves to average for an evening, Baylor can pull off the upset. It will take turnovers, but Baylor has gotten one in every game this year. It will take some luck, so let’s hope they didn’t exhaust their supply last week. And it will take the courage to actually believe it’s possible…
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Don’t forget to show support for your favorite coach by voting him as the 2011 Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year at www.coachoftheyear.com