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Baylor’s 2018 Offense Took a Huge Leap Forward

Baylor finished the year near the top of CFB in efficiency metrics.

NCAA Football: Texas Bowl-Baylor vs Vandebilt Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Baylor’s offense took a massive leap forward in year two under Matt Rhule. Before digging into the statistics that show so, I’ll first provide a brief overview of the difference between the 2017 and 2018 offenses.

In 2017, the offense was primarily led by Zach Smith, a big armed but generally inaccurate QB. Furthermore, his primary receivers struggled with drops. Thus, even if a 7 yard pass on first down was open, it was risky to operate that way because the pass was relatively (compared to most offenses) likely to be inaccurate or dropped. Furthermore, this was compounded by the fact that Baylor had a woeful OL and could not run the ball. This led to a boom-or-bust style, where Baylor employed a lot of risky screens and downfield passes. Notably, this changed later in the year when Charlie Brewer started the last four games, and Baylor finished with an offensive success rate above their season average in each of those games.

Baylor’s 2017 offense can be summed up in these back-to-back plays from the Duke game:

The 2018 Offense was much different. Led by primarily by the incredibly accurate Charlie Brewer—who broke a national high-school record for completion percentage—the offense was almost entirely predicated on the short-to-medium passing game. Baylor’s receivers still struggled with drops, but Brewer was so accurate that the proposition was still worth it. The cherry on top was that Baylor could rely on Brewer’s legs to pick up first downs when needed, allowing Baylor to consistently get first down after first down. The only defenses that really “stopped” Baylor in 2018 a) buckled down in the red zone, b) relied on Baylor penalties or drops to stall drives, or c) played in Morgantown, West Virginia.

Primarily, Baylor’s 2018 offense put defenses in a couple of main constraints. First, they had a monster of a slot wide receiver in Jalen Hurd who demanded bracket coverage (i.e., coverage from at least 2 defenders). But when teams did this, they generally left WR Denzel Mims alone, who, despite his inconsistencies, was a major threat against single coverage. And finally, when teams blitzed and/or played man coverage, they left themselves vulnerable to Brewer escaping and gaining significant yards with his legs. There is a lot more going on here, but these were the main threats Baylor posed on offense. And of course, all of this was underpinned with a significantly improved OL compared to 2017 and a decent stable of Running Backs.

Baylor’s Offense in 2018 looked a lot like this (notice how in the second clip, Tech doubles Jalen Hurd leaving Mims alone on the backside):

In 2017, the offense finished 86th in Offensive S&P+. This improved to 46th in 2018. The main reason for this was efficiency.

In 2017, the offense finished 127th in Success Rate* at 34.3% (there are 130 FBS teams) but 12th in explosiveness (The measure for explosiveness is Isolated Points-per-Play; i.e., for every successful play, how many points are you scoring?).

*For those unfamiliar with the term, success rate is as follows: 50% of needed yards on first down, 70% of needed yards on second down, or 100% of needed yards on third or fourth down. Thus, Baylor’s 34.3% success rate in 2017 means they attained these necessary yard values on only 34.3% of offensive plays.

In 2018, the offense rose to 25th in success rate at 45.9%, but fell to the middle of the pack in explosiveness at 68th. Furthermore, a new stat was added in 2018 called “marginal efficiency,” which measures how the team compares to the national average for specific down-and-distances; i.e., on every down there is an expected chance against a specific team, e.g., 3rd and 10 against the TCU defense you’re expected to convert 15% of the time, 1st and 10 you are expected to gain at least 5 yards 40% of the time, etc. This stat tracks how much better you are than expectations for every down. Baylor finished 10th in the country in marginal efficiency (finishing at +1.4% better than expected on the year).

This tracks with the differences in both the offensive personnel and philosophies. Baylor (somewhat) eschewed big play opportunities to ensure they kept getting first down after first down. This was exemplified in the Texas Bowl against Vanderbilt, where Baylor finished with a 52% success rate (as a comparison, Oklahoma’s offense finished with a 55% success rate on the year, good for second in the country).

I can’t say that it is unheard of to make such a leap in one year, but for the Baylor offense to go from one of the 3 least efficient offenses in the country to one of the 20 best is remarkable. The good news is that this is not a random fluctuation, and the reasons for the ascent largely remain. For skill players, Baylor only loses Jalen Hurd, who will be a massive loss, but Baylor showed they could equip themselves OK without him in the Texas Bowl.

One of the main reasons Baylor didn’t take too many downfield shots this year is that despite Brewer’s supreme accuracy for short and medium throws, his downfield accuracy has been spotty. If he can improve this (which he has shown improvement during 2018) by 2019, Baylor could become a truly dynamic offense with almost everyone returning from a very efficient offense. We can look forward to a lot more of this in 2019: