Immediately after Baylor finished the 2017 season at 1-11, Matt Rhule said, “Absolutely, we’re going to a bowl game next season.”
Not one to shy away from his prediction, Rhule handed Verkedrick Vaughns an award at the Green & Gold game and said, “He will lead our defense this fall as we go to a bowl game together.”
Those predictions seem wildly off base given last year’s results. The Bears lost 11 times. Liberty—a school known for the politics of its presidents and led by a head coach who helped bring Kansas football to disaster—beat Baylor at home. UTSA somehow did too. The Bears were blown out by Oklahoma State on the Fox Business Network. And crushed by Texas at home.
But some transfers should make a big difference. Jalen Hurd, a former 5-star prospect and star running back at Tennessee, will take over at wide receiver. He’ll give the Bears a home-run threat on every play. Jake Fruhmorgen, profiled well by Colt Barber of SicEm365, started nine games for Clemson’s national title team. He’ll take over on an offensive line that gave up six sacks in a loss to rival TCU. Then there’s James Lockhart, a junior defensive lineman and former high school All-American. Baylor could really use his talent on a defensive line that couldn’t pressure the quarterback.
The Bears have recruited well enough to compete with nearly everyone in the conference. Baylor signed the 5th and 4th best Big 12 classes in the last two cycles, per 247 Sports. The 2017 class ranked 30th nationally. Plenty of Baylor’s strong 2016 class played last year. 17 true freshmen took the field and 11 of them started. 88% of the offensive production returns. Xaiver Newman should boost the line and be a solid starter. The days of Mo Porter having to play through pain are gone. Harrison Hand, John Lovett and Jalen Pitre flashed All-Big 12 potential. The talent is there to win.
Then there’s a collection of guys ready to win awards now. Charlie Brewer was the Big 12 freshman of the year. According to Pro Football Focus, he had the best completion percentage nationally when he had 2.6 seconds or more to throw. He’ll have Chris Platt back, and Denzel Mims might be the best returning wide receiver in the Big 12. JaMycal Hasty’s elusiveness and pass catching ability should let Baylor line up in different formations, which nearly keyed a big upset of West Virginia.
Baylor’s 1-11 record can hide how close the Bears were in some games. The team scored 41 points and led by 10 in the 3rd quarter against Oklahoma. They played Iowa State close at the end of the season. They were within one possession for most of the second half against Kansas State. This is not Kansas football. The Bears shouldn’t have the same record as the Jayhawks again.
Going from 11 losses to winning at least six games isn’t impossible. The 1999 South Carolina Gamecocks went 0-11 in Lou Holtz’s first season. In year two, the Gamecocks went 8-4. Holtz told Tom Price that South Carolina made the jump because of, “Expectations, attitudes and standards.”
The second year in a system is often when programs take off. Urban Meyer, Bill Snyder, Bob Stoops and Kirby Smart all won at least four more games in their second season. As Shehan Jeyarajah details for Baylor DieHards, Baylor’s defensive players have a much better idea of what’s happening this season. After finishing 111th nationally last season, Phil Snow’s system should make way more sense to the Bears. Too often the Bears had costly penalities, including 10 against TCU. In their Tampa 2 alignment, the Bears’ safeties were often out of position, and even when they were in position they missed tackles.
It’s reasonable to expect a big jump in year two of Snow’s system. It happened at Temple. Snow’s defense improved by 97 spots in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ ranking in Snow’s second season, which was the largest ever year-to-year jump on either side of the ball.
The Bears should be bowl eligible. Rhule isn’t getting fired if Baylor goes 3-9, but he’s created and embraced these expectations. We’re far enough along in the process that it’s time to have more than trust in it.
I’ve been pretty close to a Sunshine Pumper (though I still think interviewing with the Colts and punting on 4th and 7 against Iowa State were bad decisions) than “Jersey won’t win here.” But Rhule is paid very well with guaranteed money to win at Baylor. He’s guaranteed a bowl game. That should—and I think will—happen.