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With 3 Games Remaining, Baylor Football Needs Positive Momentum Going Into the Offseason

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NCAA Football: Baylor at Kansas State Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

An Opportunity for a Deep Breath

This season has been stressful for coaches, players, and fans alike. So perhaps yesterday was a much needed reprieve; an opportunity for the team to regroup and finish the season strong.

I argued that the game at Texas Tech was crucial and that a loss would be very bad. Well, a loss happened and it looked much the same as the rest of the season. The offense continued to struggle, scoring only 16 points, and got virtually nothing from its passing game on a very windy day. The defense provided a pick-6 and held up for the majority of the game, but it isn’t yet at the level where they can fully close the vice grips if their offense isn’t giving enough help.

NCAA Football: Baylor at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The only major difference was that Baylor’s running game looked as good as it has all season, though it was against a very bad Texas Tech defense so it is unclear how much that will translate against much better defenses in the final 3 games.

A 2020 Mulligan?

Undoubtedly this has been a massively difficult year for a new head coach to come into. Even for coaches who have firmly established themselves, such as James Franklin and Jim Harbaugh, it seems that some just have been unable to firmly get things going in this type of environment. When Rhule was hired in 2017, I thoroughly enjoyed following the different coaches and hearing about all the things they were doing to get to know their players, such as cookouts and other get-togethers. Rhule also placed a huge emphasis on community service and other things that forced the team to get to know one another and allowed the coaches to get to know them better.

None of that has been possible for Aranda. He had a few abbreviated months of in person community, but for the past 9 months every interaction has undoubtedly felt stilted and incomplete. Football is the ultimate game of trust—players must trust their teammates to have their backs and do their jobs, they must trust their position coaches to have their best interests at heart, and they must trust their head coach to lead the program in a steady direction. In this environment, it is extraordinarily difficult for a staff to build up the necessary trust between themselves and the players.

One must absolutely keep all of these things in mind when evaluating Baylor’s 2020 season. But as I said last week, I don’t think that means you just toss everything aside. 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.

NCAA Football: Texas Christian at Baylor Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

The Depressing Possibility of Transfers

And make no mistake about it, what’s happening this season does matter. To compound things for Aranda, this upcoming off-season is likely the first year of true college “free agency,” as the NCAA is widely expected to pass a one-time transfer rule in January which allows any player to transfer without needing to sit out at their new program.

Under the current transfer rules, starters and guys who play significant minutes very rarely transfer because, well, they’re playing and don’t want to give up playing for a year even if they want to leave. This means that transfers have largely been limited to backups who leave for greener pastures (and graduate-transfers which is a whole ‘nother ballgame). Essentially, if this new rule passes as it is expected to, everyone is a graduate transfer now, and we’ve seen how big of a market that has become every off-season. You now you have to worry about legit starters leaving because they know that they’re good enough to go start wherever they want to transfer.

This deserves an article of its own (and I’ll write one if the rule passes), but I am extremely pessimistic about the effect this rule will have on college football for the non-elite programs. We have seen from the graduate transfer rule that, by in large, it has been a major boon for the elites. Group of 5 schools simply cannot hold on to their talent (look at what happened to Temple and Houston this last year). I fear that this new transfer rule will result in the transfer of talent from non-blue blood P5 schools to the elite P5 schools.

For example, if you’re a true freshman at Purdue who really wanted an offer from Alabama or some other elite school but didn’t get it, but then go on to absolutely kill it as a true freshman so now Alabama wants you, why not just transfer there now? Under the current rule this is much less likely to happen—as said previously, it is really hard to go from playing everyday to sitting out an entire year—but the new rule would completely eliminate that. Now, there is the player choice aspect that is the reason for this, and you might be in favor of this transfer of power to give players more choice; but regardless, this new rule would undoubtedly be a transfer or power to those that already have the most.

As a friend of mine put it, “It wouldn’t just be free agency. It is Bama has all the 1st round picks and you have the 7th round picks. And when you hit on your 7th rounders, everyone is on a one year contract and there is no salary cap. So they’ll just steal any of your finds and drop to you their busts.”

Baylor had their first mid-season opt out yesterday with WR Yusuf Terry, who is no longer on the roster. Terry wasn’t a starter per-se, but he had been playing a lot, albeit getting very few targets. I don’t want to speculate on reasons why he is transferring, but he probably isn’t worrying about passing up playtime at Baylor next year—he’ll be immediately eligible wherever he goes if this rule is passed as expected.

All of that to say: Baylor is enduring a tough season this year, COVID has made it near-impossible for Aranda and his staff to build an optimal relationship with their players and now they might have to worry about guys leaving under a new NCAA rule which would make them immediately eligible to transfer anywhere in the country. Keeping things together, building more trust, and finishing with some positives is an imperative for the remainder of this year.

3 Opportunities Remain

Suffice to say, I think even the most optimistic of us all would feel that a 1-8 season, with their only victory against Kansas, would be a brutal result. Baylor has a great amount of talent and it would be severely underachieving, even considering all of the COVID limitations. However, 1-8 it is not yet, they still have 3 opportunities in front of them starting with this Saturday at home versus Kansas State.

K-State was just beat down by Iowa State 45-0. This will probably lead to Baylor fans reflexively feeling pretty good about this game since Baylor so recently gave ISU a much better fight. Certainly, neither K-State or Baylor are decidedly better than one another. I made this graph a couple of weeks ago, but the numbers haven’t changed much. As you can see, both Baylor and K-State are right around each other in overall quality.

However, they aren’t as good as their overall numbers might suggest, because basically all of Kansas State’s offensive success came with Skyler Thompson at QB in their first few games. Since his injury in their 3rd game against Texas Tech, they’ve scored 14, 10, 18, and 0 points against TCU, WVU, OSU, and ISU, respectively (I left out 55 points vs Kansas).

Thompson’s replacement at QB was true freshman Will Howard, who at this point is much more of a runner than passer. After scoring 0 points and throwing an ugly interception in the first half vs Iowa State this past Saturday he was replaced by walk-on Nick Ast. I would expect them to return to Howard, as Ast was similarly ineffective and doesn’t bring the added value of gaining experience for the future.

K-State has been predictably sound on defense this year, led by their very good DE Wyatt Hubert. Their playbook is much the same as it has been in recent years: tough box play backed up by an experienced secondary who plays a lot of conservative coverage and baits you into ill-advised throws. I suspect that they won’t dedicate many numbers to the run game, play a lot of conservative coverages, and wait for Brewer to make a mistake with teh ball.

Either way, with Howard at QB and not Thompson, Kansas State doesn’t present anything scary. They’re fine enough on defense, but not good enough to overcome their woeful play on offense. In that respect, they’re rather similar to what Baylor has shown thus far this year. Baylor’s defense will hold down Kansas State’s offense this game. It is just a matter of whether the Baylor offense can provide enough help to give the D some energy and rest.

Finish with Some Hope

Baylor needs to win this game. It’s their first home game since debacle against TCU, and you don’t want to create a situation where you have to beat one of Oklahoma or Oklahoma State to get to 2 wins on the year. It’s funny how winning can cure so many ills in football. I have no doubt that the morale of the team is struggling right now—they haven’t tasted victory for several months now. A victory against K-State could provide some juice to make the final two games competitive and further some progress.

Against a substandard Kansas State team, they need to take advantage of this opportunity and get some good mojo going, both for this year and the next.