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Baylor Football in 2020: Why I Expect a Moderate, Not Severe, Decline

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Georgia vs Baylor Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

I posted this tweet thread yesterday, and I figured I’d expound upon it here.

My thread was largely in response to this opinion by Ian Boyd, which to be fair to him was just a one off tweet but got my mind going.

In conjunction with this tweet from Shehan Jeyarajah

I started thinking: how likely is it that Baylor falls to this 2019 Tech level, essentially a below average team fighting for bowl eligibility.

Typically, How Good are the “Fighting for Bowl Eligibility” Big 12 Teams?

Texas Tech finished 5-7 and 54th in Bill Connelly’s SP+ rankings in 2019. They played above their heads several times and had some serious clunkers. As Ian said, they were frisky but not a team you consider a major threat week in and week out. Contributing to their 54th ranking in SP+ was their 39th offense and 83rd ranked defense.

To be clear, for Baylor to be like Tech next year doesn’t mean they have to be as bad as Tech was in 2019. For one, the Big 12 in 2020 is largely expected to be much better. OU will likely be much better in year 2 under Grinch as defensive coordinator and with probably a better QB in Spencer Rattler. Texas will be installing new coordinators, but returns a ton on defense and is in Ehlinger’s final year at QB. Oklahoma State returns a ton of experienced talent on both sides of the ball. The league had 4 new coaches last year—West Virginia, Texas Tech, Kansas State, and Kansas—all who should see improvements in quality in year two, save maybe for Kansas State who loses quite a bit. Iowa State continues to build and still has Brock Purdy. TCU has potential with Duggan at QB but needs to figure out their offensive identity. And then there is Baylor. Of the 10 Big 12 teams, probably 8 of them expect to be decidedly better than they were in 2020.

NCAA Football: Texas at Baylor Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Furthermore, to be a feisty team, you don’t necessarily have to be as low as the 50s in SP+. I thumbed through the most recent years of Big 12 play and found some middling teams as high as the #30 but 7-6 Texas in 2017. By and large, however, if you are missing a bowl in the Big 12, you are at best ~35th in overall SP+ and more probably around ~50th.

How Much Would Baylor Need to Decline to Fall that Far?

2019 Baylor football finished 18th in overall SP+ with the 28th ranked offense and 18th ranked defense. More importantly (because ranking is a relative metric; i.e., relative to the other teams that year, so the 18th best team in 2019 is not going to be equivalent from a quality perspective to the 18th best team in 2018 or 2020) their SP+ rating was 17.8. SP+’s rating stands in for adjusted points per game. On average, the teams that finish in the 35th to 50th range have an SP+ rating spanning +9 to +3. Let’s meet in the middle and say that Baylor would need to fall to around +6 to be in that zone of “fighting for bowl eligibility” in 2020. That’s a decline of 12 rating points, or 12 points per game.

Baylor’s 2020 Offense

Baylor’s offense is likely to improve in 2020. Baylor loses two offensive starters in WR Denzel Mims and OL Sam Tecklenberg. They also lose significant contribution in RB JaMycal Hasty and WR Chris Platt. As we can see from this chart, somewhat contrary to common opinion, returning production at WR is the most important non-QB position for predicting the next year’s success.

Mims is a major loss. But with almost everyone else returning, barring major injuries or schematic hiccups, Baylor’s offense will likely improve in 2020. Baylor similarly only lost a few starters after 2018 including the major loss of WR Jalen Hurd but the Baylor O improved from 39th to 28th.

There are of course possibilities where the Baylor offense stagnates or even severely declines, but when thinking about expectations you have to stick with the most likely scenarios, otherwise you just devolve into a thousand different contingencies.

For the sake of my argument, I will assume that Baylor’s offense stays the exact same in 2020. This means that all of the decline will likely have to come from the defense.

Baylor’s 2020 Defense

Baylor’s defense finished 18th in defensive SP+ last year with a rating of 17.3 (for defensive rating, because it is adjusted points per game, lower is better). Remember, for Baylor to fall into that 35th to 50th range of overall SP+, likely putting them in that “fighting for bowl eligibility” territory, they need to fall by ~12 adjusted points per game. With the offense staying the same, that means the defense needs to be about 12 points per game worse.

This would put their defensive SP+ rating around 28-30. Teams with this defensive rating are typically ranked 60th-70th in defensive SP+. That is a long way for Baylor to fall from their 18th ranked 2019 defense.

To be sure, Baylor loses a metric ton from their 2019 defense. 9 starters, all of whom had great seasons. Some decline is definitely expected, the question is how much.

NCAA Football: Baylor at Texas Christian Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Baylor’s 2020 defense will probably have 7 or 8 upperclassmen starters. They are relatively inexperienced, but because Snow and Rhule liked to rotate so many guys many of them have seen significant playing time even if they haven’t started before.

Furthermore, there isn’t any available evidence that you should expect a dip in Aranda’s first year because of scheme implementation. When Aranda joined Utah State in 2012 their previous three defenses under Gary Andersen were atrocious, but Aranda took a D with 8 upperclassmen starters from 86th to 31st in defensive SP+. Wisconsin was great on D before Aranda arrived but he still improved them in year one. LSU had dipped down to 34th in defensive SP+ the year prior to Aranda and he brought them up to 2nd in his first year there. Thus, there is no available evidence that Aranda will crater a defense to implement his scheme like you see from some coaches.

Some Decline Should Be Expected. But I Don’t Expect Baylor To Be Fighting for Bowl Eligibility

With Baylor’s offense looking like it will improve or at least stay the same, most of the expected decline for the 2020 Bears will come on the defensive side of the ball. I don’t think that Aranda, with his extensive defensive background, is going to oversee a Baylor defense which dips into the 50s or 60s nationally. Possible? Yes. But we are talking expectations here; i.e., most likely scenarios.

I think the most likely scenario is something like an offense ranked around 20th nationally combined with a defense somewhere around 40th. That’s still a significant defensive decline—around 7 points per game—but not the cratering necessary for Baylor to fall into the 50s or 60s. Some 2019 teams similar to that were Indiana, who finished 8-5 with the 22nd ranked offense and 43rd ranked defense, or North Carolina who finished 7-6 with the 25th best offense and 44th ranked defense.

As I stated previously, there are a thousand different contingencies. What if Brewer can’t play anymore or gets hurt? A rash of other injuries? Transfers (either players coming in or leaving)? There’s a lot to consider. It is also silly to only focus on the negative contingencies when there are so many positive ones as well (e.g., what if Baylor’s offense really takes off returning so much production and infused with new coaches?). But with the best available information at this time, I wouldn’t expect Baylor to dip too far off what they were in 2019.