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Dave Aranda Really Can Win at Baylor, but He Must Make Tough Changes

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A bad season doesn’t doom Aranda’s tenure

NCAA Football: Baylor at Iowa State Brian Powers-USA TODAY Sports

Spin all you want and offer any excuse for why Baylor went 2-7. The offensive line was bad. COVID-19 made it impossible to build comradery with the team. A first year coach deserves a ton of leeway. Throw out more bad takes, but they can’t obscure the truth: Baylor should have been better this season.

They returned every major offensive piece beyond JaMycal Hasty and Denzel Mims. Yes, that duo hurts to lose. But the Bears returned Tyquan Thornton, Josh Fleeks, Charlie Brewer, Trestan Ebner and John Lovett. Bill Connelly had their offense 23rd to start the season.

Things went disastrously on offense. As Mark noted, the Bears had their worst yards per play since 2002 on Saturday. It wasn’t much better before that. They won the turnover battle—a good predictor of success—against West Virginia (+2), Texas, Iowa State (+2) and Texas Tech. They lost all of those games.

With how poorly things went on offense, Aranda should have made a quarterback change. Every week he mentioned that Brewer gave the team the best shot to win. Maybe that would have proven true if Baylor had made a switch. But things can go so poorly that a change is necessary. Brewer finished with his worst mark ever in yards per attempt, TD/INT ratio and rushing yards. He finished 89th nationally in QBR and ranked lower than that for most of the season in PFF’s rankings.

Saying Brewer played terribly is not fun. The man gave everything for Baylor football. He’s suffered concussions and taken more shots to his shoulder than a veteran boxer. Tough men would have given up the game long ago with the injuries he’s suffered. He got Baylor to a Big 12 title game and the Sugar Bowl.

The Bears need to go into next season with Jacob Zeno the frontrunner to start. He only came in yesterday because Brewer suffered another shoulder injury. But Zeno gives the Bears a necessary vertical passing element that Brewer can’t. Zeno also proved plenty mobile, which detracts from the theory that Baylor had to play Brewer because only he could avoid the rush against a catastrophic offensive line.

Recognizing Zeno should be the frontrunner to start means Aranda needs to have honest conversations with both Zeno and Brewer about their role next season. It would be extremely reasonable for Zeno to consider transferring after not taking any snaps until long after the final game’s outcome was inevitable. But I don’t think he’s going to leave, especially if he has a legitimate chance to be the starter. If Brewer is okay returning as a fifth year guy that is unlikely to see the field, then more power to him. But if he wants to keep playing, Aranda should let him know they’re planning to play someone else next season.

This leads to a second issue, Baylor needs to figure out what they want to be offensively. Larry Fedora, as offensive coordinator, has received plenty of ire. He’s the captain of that ship, and maybe he deserves to lose his job because his ship sunk. I’m not advocating for him to lose his job. Fedora built good offenses at several stops. The problem seems to be a lack of synergy among the offensive staff. If Fedora is the offensive coordinator, then he should be given control and allowed to implement an offense that plays to Zeno’s strengths. If he needs to make staff changes, he should be allowed to make them. Yet, if Aranda decides Fedora is not the guy, he should fire him. Maybe Fedora and the current staff can get on the same page about what they want the offense to be. But if they can’t, then Aranda needs to decide who needs to be replaced and make those decisions immediately.

The final area where Aranda must improve is by being more aggressive. As a defensive coach, Aranda has displayed unbelievable conservatism with in-game decisions. This is not the 1964 Republican nomination where conservatism is a virtue. It’s a vice in a wide-open Big 12. Aranda rightfully recognized his decision to punt on Texas’ 30 yard line was idiotic. But he didn’t try and score before halftime with the lead in Ames. He attempted field goals far too often, especially against Oklahoma. And he loves punting. In the Big 12 that doesn’t work.

Aranda can get this done. He’s a phenomenal defensive coach. The defense lost nine starters from last year’s team. If any side of the ball should have been putrid, it’s that one. Terrell Bernard, easily Baylor’s best player, missed most of the season. Despite that, they held Oklahoma to 27 points—their lowest output ever under Lincoln Riley. From Wisconsin to LSU to Baylor, Aranda’s shown he can win coaching defense.

The skills that make Aranda a brilliant defensive coach make it possible to turn this around. But as a good man who led one side of the ball, he now has to make broader decisions. It’s never fun to tell people they’re losing their position or job. But a head coach has to make those decisions. Aranda understands more about football and the X’s and O’s of success than anyone. His goal of avoiding conflict by not making a quarterback change and letting his offensive staff have no working identity has made conflict inevitable.

Nothing is doomed here. Matt Rhule went 1-11 and then made one of the dumbest decisions imaginable by interviewing for the Colts job. That franchise was never going to hire a coach coming off a 1-11 season. That interview made recruiting tougher and risked destroying his credibility with the players. It’s hard to “trust the process” when that process looked to have a quick expiration. Aranda hasn’t done anything that dumb and appears committed to the team.

Aranda can do this. If I thought he couldn’t, I’d write that he’s just not a head coach and Baylor needs to end this before it gets too bad. But Aranda’s got one side of the ball figured out. If you wanted someone that could win at Baylor, you’d want someone that designed defenses in multiple leagues and slowed down some of the most explosive offenses. That kind of decision-making is transferrable to making better decisions with the offense and recognizing the conservatism he favored on the field fails.

But Aranda must actually change things. If he doesn’t, Baylor will join Texas—a program that has only delayed the inevitable by not removing Tom Herman now—in looking for a head coach in the next few years. I

believe Aranda, the cerebral leader of Baylor football, will explore why it went so wrong this year and make the necessary changes. Those won’t be fun, but they’ll ensure more fun days.