It is wild to realize, but because Baylor had to cancel their non-conference games they are more than halfway through with the season. Up to this point, this season has largely been a massive disappointment. All first year head coaches have been at a significant disadvantage this year due to COVID limiting their ability to install their systems, culture, and establish a rapport with their players. Furthermore, Baylor was hit extremely hard at both an extremely inopportune time (just as the season was beginning) and to position groups that least could afford to be out for an extended period of time (the offensive and defensive lines).
Despite all that Aranda and his staff have had to work through, it is still fair to criticize the way the season has started. While many have used Rhule’s 2017 season as a reason to call for patience, those situations are remarkably different and bear analyzing through different lenses. Rhule inherited a talented team, but one which lacked even a semblance of depth at crucial positions and was recovering from cultural disarray. Aranda, on the hand, inherited a very talented roster with a strong cultural foundation, his limitations have been confined to his ability to establish his scheme and culture, as well as dealing with particularly difficult COVID effects.
If you look at probabilities for the rest of the year, the most likely result is probably 2-7 followed equally by 1-9 or 3-6. Rhule in/famously went 1-11 in his opening year at Baylor with his only win being a butt-whooping of moribund Kansas. Aranda does not want to follow in suit.
You have to imagine that there is a tough aspect to this season for many Baylor players. The vast majority of them were part of the Big 12 title game team in 2019, and if Rhule comes back this year I think they’re at worst fighting for a spot in the Big 12 title game. Now, it would be foolish to think any new head coach could immediately pick up where Rhule left off, even more so when you consider everything Aranda has had to work through, but I don’t think that exempts the staff from any and all criticism like I’ve seen some say. Instead, I think the best thing to do is try and separate out what the staff could be doing better despite all of the difficulties they’ve had to deal with.
For example, I think Baylor’s overall lack of offensive identity and seeming lack of knowledge of what some players are good or bad at goes largely in the COVID bucket. Fair to point out what you think they’re doing wrong? Absolutely. But not a major source of concern for me until I see the same concerns play out in a normal year.
On the flip side, I do think there are some areas for concern that one has no reason to suspect will be different in a normal year. For instance, I think Aranda has played it “safe” on nearly every significant “go for it or punt it” situation this year. I think he has stuck with Charlie Brewer, despite very bad play, for far too long which could have significant ramifications on whether younger players feel like they will ever get a chance.
A .... Must Win Game?
In general I hate the phrase “a must win game”—because it begs the question, must win or else what?—but this Saturday’s game has a pretty clear answer to that question. If Baylor wants to have any hope of anything beyond a 1-9, 2-7, or 3-6 season, this is a must win game. Texas Tech has been decidedly very bad this year. The advanced metrics all tell a similar story: a middling offense combined with an absolutely terrible defense.
Here’s the current state of the Big 12 per SP+ (an advanced metric that gives a very good approximation of how good teams are):
There’s actually a funny symmetry with where Tech is this year versus where Baylor was in 2017:
As we can see, 2017 Baylor was pretty bad. Every non-Kansas teams fans would’ve been really frustrated had they lost to 2017 Baylor. Similarly, Texas Tech is very bad this year, and any non-Kansas team should feel bad if they lose to them.
KSU Fan on twitter makes these great charts every week which compare Big 12 teams to one another using some critical stats. These are “raw” stats and don’t adjust for opponent which is very important to keep in mind (your defensive numbers will always look worse after playing OU, even if you played them well). Here’s the most recent chart from this past week:
When Baylor Has the Ball ...
The stats exemplify how terrible Texas Tech’s defense is; they’re the only team even close to sniffing Kansas in important categories like yards per drive and points per drive. They don’t do anything well: they give up tons of points, yards, don’t force puts, and don’t force turnovers. Baylor is near the bottom in nearly every offensive category except turnover rate, which is largely luck influenced with this small of a sample size. This is a matchup of bad vs. bad, but will be a huge indictment against the Baylor offense if they can’t get anything going against this Tech D.
When Texas Tech Has the Ball ...
On offense, Tech’s numbers are middling to below average. One interesting thing is that they are middle of the pack in yards per drive & points per drive, last in field goal rate, and 4th in TD rate. What this speaks to is that they’re an offense reliant on big plays. Baylor is near the middle of the pack in every defensive category, but they’ve also had a relatively easy schedule so far with respect to offenses faced. Furthermore, you have to knock everything down a bit considering the loss of Terrel Bernard.
Thus, I think this game has a of symmetry. When Baylor has the ball, it will be bad against bad. When Texas Tech has the ball it will be middling vs middling. I would’ve given Baylor a decent edge here if they still have Bernard, but with his loss I expect some struggles, especially early.
If you look back at that graph of the 2020 Big 12, you’ll see that of Baylor’s 4 remaining games, they are against: Texas Tech, by far the worst remaining team on the schedule; Kansas State, who ranks similarly to Baylor; and the two Oklahoma schools, both whom seem much better than Baylor at this point. If Baylor wants to get to 3 wins, they almost definitely need to win this weekend.
Can Baylor Keep Improving?
For most of the year Baylor’s offense has just been very, very bad. They finally showed some signs of life for parts of the Texas game and then more so against Iowa State, finishing with 6.1 yards per play (pretty good!). However, yards per play is largely a measure of explosiveness, while success rate (which measures efficiency) is much more predictive for how a team will do in the future. Baylor finished with a 37% success rate, a step below average for an FBS team.
Most importantly, I thought that Brewer looked much healthier than he has all year. He looked like he was also playing more decisively, particularly on his short to intermediate throws. Some familiar woes plagued him in the 3rd quarter however, and then things culminated with the poor stare down interception to end the game.
I’ve written and talked about him enough this year and I’m kind of tired of doing so. I don’t like being painted with the negative brush but I’m just trying to do my best to analyze what is going on. Many have been quick to blame other players, such as the OL and WRs, who are equally human. About Brewer I’ll conclude with this: In 2018 he finished with an overall PFF rating of 91.3, which is very elite and was one of the top overall QB numbers in the country. PFF looks at each individual play and gives it a grade; so for a QB, that largely means how good they were at delivering accurate, on time throws.
In 2019 he dipped down to 81, a much more above-average type number. This year, he’s at 59.6, which is about as bad as 91.3 was good, and puts him at 90th overall in the country. Clearly, things have dropped off this year. And while some might immediately be trying to blame others, it is important to note that PFF looks at each individual player, thus it factors in bad OL/WR play (which is how Brewer was able to achieve such a lofty rating in 2018 despite horrid OL play). QB play is far from the only reason the offense has struggled this year but I think it is a significant percentage. It is possible that nobody else on the roster is better, but either way it needs to improve significantly for Baylor to get much better this year.
My major worry at this point is that, while I would predict Baylor’s offense to marginally improve as the season goes on, the defense took a major hit with the loss of Terrel Bernard. Baylor’s defense has been surprisingly good this season, with a lot of sound play lifted up by the All-American level linebackers Terrel Bernard and Jalen Pitre. Bernard’s backup is former RB Abram Smith, a guy with a lot of size and athleticism but little experience at the position. I expect that things will go pretty rough for him early on as he gets his feet wet. It is important for fans to remember that this is normal—converted everything Blake Lynch was pretty poor as a LB when he first moved there, but by the time he had 20 games at linebacker under his belt he was a decidedly very good player.
As expected, Abram is playing with a lot of hesitation. One of the things Roberts might do with him is have him attack the LOS instead of asking him to float back and make the play like they so often did with Bernard pic.twitter.com/Wqyffo75e8— Travis (@Travis_Roeder) November 9, 2020
Bernard was basically the sole reason that Baylor’s run defense was alright; without him I’d expect teams to really attack Baylor’s box defenders. This might lead to Baylor having to dedicate more numbers to the box and make them more susceptible to giving up big plays in the passing game.
What To Watch For Against Tech
- Texas Tech’s defense is terrible. Baylor’s offense has been very bad to start this year, but if it struggles against this Tech defense that might be the most worrying result of the season.
- Baylor will probably get and need to get more turnovers on defense. Tech QB Henry Colombi, who replaced previous starter Alan Bowman, has largely been below average and earned the job because he’s much more mobile than Bowman is. Tech’s OL is terrible and Baylor will need to get after Colombi and force him to make bad decisions.
- How does Baylor handle Texas Tech’s standard run game? Tech’s OL has largely been terrible in pass protection, but they have a couple of good interior OL. With Baylor losing Bernard, expect Tech to really attack the interior of Baylor’s defense and see if they can lean on the run game to march down the field.
Another week, another very tough game to predict. My number one prediction is I think that this one is gonna be ugly. Tech’s QB has shown a predilection for turning the ball over, Brewer has done the same (though many of his would-be INTs have been dropped), and it is going to be a windy day in Lubbock. This game should have relatively high scoring considering how bad Tech’s defense is and Baylor is trying to recover from the loss of their most important player. I expect a back and forth game interspersed with turnovers, big plays, and 3 and outs.
Ultimately, I think Baylor is gonna have to score in this game, probably into the 30s if they want to win. I don’t think the defense will hold up well without Bernard; at least not in this first game without him.
I’ll take Baylor 31 - 30. I think the team shows some resilience and escapes from Lubbock with a win despite some ugly play.