This entire week, I've felt both relieved that we secured bowl eligibility against Texas Tech and somewhat upset (both at myself and others) for basically writing the Bears off this weekend. I don't want to be 6-6 on the season, barely squeaking in and forfeiting our momentum in the last week, considering how far we've come in the last month or so. 7-5 fits much better, I think, and gives us the chance to get 8 wins with a good showing wherever we end up.
At the same time, I understand completely why we're the underdog in this game: OSU's is better on both sides of the ball than Tech and we've had trouble defending them in the past. It's no far-fetched at all to think a game with an O/U at this point of 87 is going to be a shootout with Baylor's defense getting burned repeatedly. If that turns out to be the case, however, I almost like it better for our chances. Baylor has what is by basically any measure one of the best offenses in the country and is well-equipped to prevail in a shootout. The fact that we didn't against West Virginia and Texas notwithstanding, Baylor plays better at home than on the road (only home loss the last two years was the turnover-plagued game against TCU) and has definitely improved from where we were in those games. I dare say that if we were matched up against either team at home right now, we might well be favored in those games. We're not, though, because we get the Oklahoma State Cowboys, a team that in a so-called rebuilding year still managed to secure a top-4 spot in the conference and has several impressive games on their ledger.
I've never been totally convinced that momentum as something that actually impacts the outcome of games exists, but I think that I think that it does, if that makes sense. I have an inherent skepticism of things that can't totally be quantified (as they relate to sports, I mean), so the concept of momentum bothers that part of me that doesn't buy the concept. It's hard to deny, however, that Baylor as a team is better today than it has been throughout the season, and is more likely to play better at home tomorrow than it would on the road. That's something I don't know if the oddsmakers account for or how they might if they do. I'm not an oddsmaker, after all. It's wishy-washy homerism to say that I think it will make a difference, but I guess that I am a wishy-washy homer. I like the way this Baylor team is playing as a whole right now and feel like that will continue tomorrow, even if I can't absolutely prove that it will or support my belief with statistics. Know that I've tried, though.
Despite what I said above about enjoying a shootout, for Baylor to prevail tomorrow I truly believe it has to do three things. First, it needs to stop Joseph Randle running the ball on first and second down. That's a given. As bad as we have been on third downs, we'd definitely prefer our opponent facing long conversions to short ones. It only makes sense that if you can force your opponent to be as one-dimensional as possible, even if that dimension is one against which you're not very good, you should be better off. Given the fact that Clint Chelf, tomorrow's starter for the Cowboys, is still relatively inexperienced, I'm comfortable forcing him to beat us even if he is more than capable of doing so. Second, our offense has to continue running the ball the way it has the last few games. Oklahoma State's defense is quite good (16th in S&P+) against the run, so this should be our biggest challenge in a while. If we can continue showing positive results on the ground, where we've averaged over 290 yards per game in the last four, our chances necessarily increase to win the game. I say that Briles' offense works best when it is balanced because it's true. I think Briles would tell you the same exact thing. Finally, we have to continue creating turnovers. Aside from the game against Oklahoma, Baylor has won every game the last two seasons in which it has a positive turnover differential. That trend very nearly did not bear true against Texas Tech last week when we forced 4 turnovers and only won in overtime, but the point remains that our best chance to stop Oklahoma State is to limit their possessions through turnovers. They're going to rack up yards, it's basically guaranteed, so we're going to need turnovers to get their offense and our defense off the field. If I were to add a fourth point of emphasis it would be special teams. We're terrible at them and they're not, and that scares me. There is nothing more deflating than watching your offense perform well in marching down the field for a score than seeing your kickoff coverage team give yards (or points) right back on the next play. Oklahoma State has a good kicker/punter in Quinn Sharp, as it seems they do every year.
Schematically, I think we all know what to expect from the Cowboys. They run a relatively fast-paced offense that likes to throw the ball to numerous different receivers, even if the crop this year is relatively down from the last few, while also maintaining a healthy diet of the run. That predilection towards the running game is what separates them from most other spread teams except Baylor, and they have a back good enough in Joseph Randle to make it work for them. Combine that with the desire to protect their young QBs (Chelf is a junior but still qualifies, I think, because of his inexperience) and you get a situation where, much like Baylor, they run more than they pass. That's why I say defending the run is so critical: they absolutely do want to run the football and run it effectively. It opens up everything they do down the field. They like to use J.W. Walsh, particularly, in designed running plays and QB draws when he's on the field, and those are an integral portion of their offense. Staying "home" on the draw plays to Randle, which absolutely killed us last year, and the QBs is absolutely critical.
On the defensive side, OSU runs a fairly straightforward 4-3 defense that uses a ton of zone against spread offenses. We've seen it several times and generally had decent success, at least until we got inside the 20s. If you recall last season, we moved the ball well against OSU in Stillwater before stalling out inside the red zone, not converting drives into points, and getting into too big of a hole to possibly overcome. It was after that game that we focused so much on short yardage running last year to try to improve our success with a shorter field. My hope for this season is that our suddenly dominant running game alleviates that issue, since we'll probably be able to move the ball as needed between the 20s. The thunder and lightning tandem of Glasco Martin and Lache Seastrunk have been able in recent weeks to take significant pressure off Nick Florence, and I hope that continues in this game. I also hope for entirely selfish reasons that Terrance (Terrence Williams) absolutely goes off against OSU's secondary so that he has an easier shot at 2000 receiving yards on the season. As long as it's working, I'm ok with us feeding him 12-15 receptions in this game in the hopes that he puts up a huge game. Like I said, I'm a homer.
I sincerely hope that anyone who has the ability to get to the game tomorrow gets there. The seniors playing their last game in front of a home crowd deserve our support for everything they've given to the University, and by now we know that when they take the field after the pregame festivities, they will do so as the first class in Baylor history to go to three bowl games in a row. That's pretty incredible. As for the game itself, know that Oklahoma State is a good football team that has earned everything it's gotten this season, and that tomorrow will be a challenge. All that said, go ahead and give me your prediction for the outcome of the game (which starts at 11:00 AM on FX!) in the poll below. Tonight, after the poll has been open for a while, I'll share my own prediction here.
For more information about the game, there are two outstanding previews available from the subscription sites that I want to highlight and several other links worth looking at:
-- S11's OSU Preview on BearsTruth (247Sports)
-- Tim Watkin's 3-parter on BearsIllustrated (Scout)
-- David Ubben's "Did You Know" from this week
-- AP article talking about the Big 12's best offenses meeting this weekend
-- Ubben's predictions for this week's games (he has us losing)
-- ESPN's preview and game page
I'll add more as I find them. Vote in the poll!