A Tough Big 12
The 2019 Big 12 was pretty interesting. When you look at both the results and advanced stats, there were some pretty clear tiers with Oklahoma and Baylor at the top, followed by a Iowa State and Texas, then probably Oklahoma State, TCU, and somewhat surprisingly, Kansas State. Then you had the other three first year head coaches with West Virginia, Texas Tech, and Kansas all struggling to figure things out while dealing with roster turnover and injuries.
After you hire a new head coach you can expect to see the most improvement, by far, in the second year. Indeed, a lot of the time, the second year of that head coach will be the best team they put out there. There is obviously a lot of variability out there, but it serves as a good rule of thumb. There are 4 second year head coaches this year at Kansas State, West Virginia, Texas Tech, and Kansas.
Furthermore, the league brings back nearly every starting QB. Before Max Duggan’s mysterious ailment at TCU, 8 out of 10 QBs were coming back, with one of the newcomers being former 5* Spencer Rattler being plugged in at Oklahoma. It’s going to be a great year for QB play. Success in the Big 12 tends to come with QB play; it doesn’t really matter how good your defense is if you can’t score.
What this sets up is a scenario where teams can reasonably improve in 2020, but maybe not improve much or at all in wins. You have to keep that in the back of your mind when predicting Baylor, or anyone else, this season.
In 2019, Baylor finished 28th on offense per SP+. This overall number is sort of meaningless, because Baylor’s offense with a healthy Brewer was more top 20, while the one we saw in the Big 12 championship game or against Georgia was probably below 50. Other advanced stats were not as high on Baylor’s offense, with FEI ranking them 48th and beta rank having them around 50th. You don’t need to know what those numbers mean exactly, but the important thing to know is that when Brewer was healthy last year Baylor’s offense was quite good. When he was injured, they were well below average.
Brewer’s health makes predicting Baylor’s 2020 offense quite difficult. I don’t know what the official tally was, but it seems that Brewer suffered at least a few concussions last year. Can he withstand another one and still come back? I don’t think anybody knows. You can’t really average the likelihood of him getting injured, it’s more binary: if he is healthy all year, Baylor’s offense is likely quite good in 2020. If he gets hurt relatively early on, it’s fair to expect a significant step back while Bohanon or Zeno get their feet wet.
All I can really do is analyze Baylor’s offense with a healthy Brewer, all with the caveat that a significant injury could derail things (as it could for any other team, perhaps just more likely for Brewer due to his past playing style and history of concussions).
Generally, installing a new offensive scheme goes smoother than installing a new defensive scheme. This is because offensive football is becoming more and more homogenous; i.e., there is not much of a difference between a lot of college playbooks. Furthemore, there isn’t a massive difference between the offense Baylor was running under Rhule vs the offense that Fedora is installing. It’s largely based on inside zone, gap schemes, and RPOs. The main difference is in pass play selection—Fedora focuses much more on quick game, whereas Rhule was running more pro-style route combinations in the drop back passing game.
The main things we can expect almost regardless of overall efficacy is a reduction in sack rate. Brewer will be getting the ball out of his hands much quicker. He has also been saying the necessary things about knowing how much he needs to protect his body and slide. Brewer taking less hits—both due to taking fewer sacks and hopefully sliding more—gives more hope that he can make it through the season uninjured.
On offense, Baylor has two major questions going into the season. First, can they replace Denzel Mims, who was responsible for so much of their success last year. Second, can they get improved OL play after years of subpar results. As to the first, yes I believe they can with Tyquan Thornton. And as for the OL, I think they will be much better this year with the addition of grad transfer Jake Burton and overall accumulated experience across the rest of the OL. I’m quite confident in Thornton’s ability to replace Mims, the OL is the biggest question, in my opinion. Even against teams like Lousiana Tech, it will be telling on how clean they can keep the pocket for Brewer.
Baylor’s offense has a decent range of possibilities. I think there is a scenario where they are one of the 2 or 3 best in the conference. A healthy Brewer with the offensive skill weapons is incredibly potent. Much will hinge on the OL play, not only to make the offense more effective in general, but to keep Brewer healthy. Overall, I think it is fair to see slight improvement as the most probable outcome in 2020.
I have spent a ridiculous amount of time this offseason trying to predict Baylor’s 2020 defense. There are so many questions, but we are finally starting to get more answers. As I discussed in a previous post, it looks like Baylor is going to base out of a 3 defensive line look with Jalen Pitre as the crucial space player.
Eight months ago, I hammered out a long post about why I expect Baylor’s defense to see moderate, not severe, decline in 2020. I looked at the 3 previous stops for Aranda—Utah State, Wisconsin, and LSU—and found that Aranda’s defenses didn’t crater at any of them. Are all of their situations analogous? No. But some coaches—like Rhule—will tear out all of the studs before they build it back up. The available evidence demonstrates that Aranda is willing to start out with a simplified defense to allow for early success.
Aranda has a lot to replace, to be sure. Baylor lost 9 starters from its dynamite 2019 defense. But it is important to remember that the cupboard is not bare, and he isn’t replacing everyone with a bunch of young, unproven guys. Despite the relative inexperience, Baylor’s 2020 starting defense will feature 8 or 9 upperclassmen starters. That is above average in college football.
Furthermore, they’ve been bolstered at two crucial spots with the additions of William Bradley-King at JACK linebacker and Dillon Doyle at middle linebacker. Baylor’s 2020 defense will be built around dynamic LB play. Expect all of WBK, Doyle, Bernard, and Pitre to have a handful of sacks each.
After reaching such highs in 2019, it is reasonable to expect some decline in 2020. The question is how much. Overall, I think the most likely outcome is Baylor declines moderately on defense—say by 7-9 points per game. Better and worse outcomes are possible here, but I’m talking most probable.
Where does this put Baylor in the Big 12?
A few months ago, I made this handy chart to give you a rough idea of how many wins you typically need to place at X spot in the Big 12:
Of course there is variability. Sometimes you may only need 5 wins to place 3rd, or maybe four teams finish with 4 wins. But given nine Big 12 seasons at this point, this is the average distribution. As you can see, Baylor was picked 5th in the Big 12 preseason media poll. This means something like 4 or 5 Big 12 wins.
I think this is a fair expectation. I think Baylor is probably the 3rd or 4th most talented team in the league, so it is reasonable to dock them a slot or two due to a new head coach and player turnover. Baylor probably has the biggest confidence interval in the entire league—I think there are scenarios all the way from “Baylor’s offense clicks on all cyclinders and the D only declines a little bit, Baylor sneaks into the Big 12 title game.” to “Brewer is hurt or hobbled, the D doesn’t come together at all, Aranda has to adjust things, Baylor finishes near the bottom of the conference.”
But when you’re making predictions, you have to go with the most probable outcome. Overall, I think the most likely outcome is that Baylor’s offense improves slightly/moderately, while the defense declines moderately. If everyone in the country were playing, I think Baylor would be a borderline top 25 team all year. On the scale of outcomes, I think Baylor going 5-4 in Big 12 play is most likely, with 6-3 more likely than 4-5.
My expectation is that Baylor is like 2019 Iowa State: a team who is on the periphery of in the Big 12 hunt all year, but needs some breaks in their direction to make it happen. Do I hope for better? Of course! Is worse possible? Of course!
Let me know what you think!