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How Baylor Can Beat Oklahoma

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Baylor is coming off a stinker at TCU and one of their coaches left to become the head guy at a Big 12 rival. Can they refocus to beat a really good OU team?

NCAA Football: Baylor at Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma Is Good. But Baylor Is Too.

Oklahoma comes into this Baylor game undefeated, and like every other year they’ve had under head coach Lincoln Riley, they bring in a very good offense. This has been an interesting year for OU, certainly not up to the standard they’ve set over the past few years, though you could argue that they are approaching that ceiling now that they’ve inserted star freshman QB Caleb Williams into the starting lineup.

Over the past 5 years, OU has established a standard of “other-worldly” offense with middling defense. This year it’s been more “elite but not hyper elite” offense with a middling defense. Still very good, just not quite at their standard. I do think Williams at QB makes it quite possible that they regain that status as college football’s best offense, but they’re not there yet.

But even though they’re below that standard offensively, they are still a very good team. They rank 7th in offensive FEI, they are successful on 52% of their plays (college football average is around 42%), and remain very explosive after a slow start to the year. QB Caleb Williams will make ~5 plays a game that you simply can’t defend, he’s a special talent. Defensive guys like Aranda probably wouldn’t admit it, but OU is very much a team you probably need to score 31+ to beat. It’s hard for anyone to hold them under that.

Baylor is capable of that. The offense has been up and down, but has really only been held down by two teams this year: Oklahoma State and TCU. We all know what happened in that OSU game—OSU played incredibly aggressive with their safeties and attacked Baylor’s run game, daring Baylor to beat them downfield. They’ve also done that against everybody and resoundingly rank as a top 5 defense in college football. West Virginia tried the same strategy the next week and Baylor destroyed them downfield.

NCAA Football: West Virginia at Baylor Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

TCU was a bit different. Over the course of the game Baylor was decently successful, but TCU had a 3 or 4 drive stretch where they didn’t allow Baylor to do anything. They mimicked the Oklahoma State gameplan and Baylor wasn’t taking shots downfield and played poorly on the interior of their offensive line. Baylor recovered but it was too little too late in a wild game.

By this point in the season I think we have a pretty good grasp on Baylor’s offense. They’re not an elite unit, and it’s probably too strong to say they’re great. But they’re decidedly very good and flirt with dominance when teams can’t stop the run. Baylor is 23rd in offensive FEI and are successful on 50% of their plays (well above CFB average). They’re decidedly “very good.”

Oklahoma’s defense definitely has not been “very good,” but it’s possible they could be getting there. I’ve argued and continue to do so that when you revolve your organizational structure around offense like OU does, it’s very hard to craft an elite defense. Defense requires practice, attention to detail, culture, etc. that are really hard to do while you’re simultaneously practicing and playing offense the way OU does. OU does have a lot of talent defensively, particularly across their defensive front where all of their DL and OLBs are very good. They just don’t play particularly together or sound. They DO play hard, so it’s not an effort issue. I just think that their ceiling is as a “very good” unit somewhere around 20-30. A top 20-30 defense matched with OU’s offense is an elite team. We’ll see if they can get there as they close out the year (they’ve had 3 or 4 starters out for differing chunks of the year, all are healthy now, I believe).

A lot of Baylor fans—including myself, initially—were surprised by Oklahoma only being a 5 point favorite. But when you look at basically any advanced metric, these two teams line up pretty close with OU having a slight advantage. Bill Connelly’s numbers at ESPN have OU as a 2 point favorite and Brian Fremeau’s FEI has Baylor a slight favorite (!). Baylor is coming off their worst performance of the season, by far, against a team they absolutely should have beat. But that doesn’t erase everything else that has happened this season, and if you regularly make predictions in CFB based on what happened in one game, you’re gonna lose a lot of money.

So that’s a handful of paragraphs to say look: both these teams are really good, Oklahoma is probably a little better at this point, but Baylor isn’t a massive underdog in this game.

Travis, Did You Watch Last Week?

Yeah, I did. I was there. It was ugly. I could write a lot here, but it’s like I said above: college football is crazy, better teams lose to worse teams all the time, and it doesn’t determine the remainder of their season. I wrote a whole article earlier this week about how Aranda won’t let OU beat them the same way TCU did, you can read that here.

What Baylor Needs To Do Defensively

The crux of the issue last week was that Baylor simply could not stop TCU’s passing attack. Coming into this game, TCU had been a run-centric offense featuring their good running backs Zach Evans and Kendre Miller as well as running their QB Max Duggan. Well, Patterson was fired (and he notoriously meddled in offensive playcalling) and all three of those guys were hurt. They turned things to a redshirt freshman QB and simply let it rip, throwing WAY more than they had all season.

Baylor’s defense was caught flat-footed. Even though they prepared for this possibility all week, it’s one thing to theorize and another to see it in person. An ironic aspect of this game is that the TCU’s offense was a throwback to the standard offense we’d see in the Big 12 for most of the past 10 or 15 years. But it was the first time all year that Baylor had seen a team who primarily played out of 10 personnel (1 RB, 4 WRs) or empty (5 wide) and attacked downfield nearly every play.

As I discussed in the article I wrote earlier this week, this really counters the strategy and technique of Baylor’s defensive front. Baylor’s DL is taught to stack and shed against OL on standard downs, which means on a 1st and 10 they’re taught to fire into the pads of the OL, “find the ball” with their eyes, and then rip away the OL to get to the ball. This is why they’ve become so dominant against the run, they’re just owning the line of scrimmage. However, when a team is throwing on nearly every 1st and 10, stacking and shedding doesn’t do much—all it really does is give the QB more time to throw. Most teams aren’t willing to eschew the run game the way that TCU did, and Oklahoma won’t do it either. Even if OU leans that way given what they saw Baylor do against TCU, you better believe that Aranda and staff have been working on how to fix those issues all week. I deep-dive into those issues (primarily pass rush) in that article I linked above.

Aranda Knows How To Stop the Lincoln Riley Offense

Aranda’s record against Riley is pretty dang good. Last year, with a defense markedly worse than this year’s Baylor defense, Baylor held Oklahoma to their lowest ever offensive yards per play under Lincoln Riley. It was a masterclass performance. One thing that is noticeable when watching last year’s game is that Aranda understands Riley’s tendencies, with respect to both formations and down and distance. There are a lot of instances where Baylor is attacking the run HARD against certain formations, but not respecting play fakes against others and staying back against the pass.

There was a coaching clinic Aranda did for Texas high school coaches last year that lived on youtube for a few precious months before it was removed, it was about how to stop the spread offense using the tite front defensively (the tite front is a zero nose over the offensive center with two defensive ends each lined up on the inside shoulder of their respective offensive tackles). It wasn’t about Oklahoma, but one of the things I gleaned was that so much of Aranda’s base defense is built to stop offenses like Oklahoma. Many of the checks and substitutions he talked about were really good against teams like Oklahoma. I don’t think it was an accident he was talking about this, he had just come off the national title run where they had smothered OU in the college football playoff.

What Aranda really understands about defending OU is how to stop their run game. He goes all in on stopping their base running play: counter.

The idea when running counter is to outnumber the defense at the point of attack. The way to “counter the counter” is simply blow the play up. You don’t worry as much about gap integrity—it’s more about creating chaos and hesitation to allow the other defenders to rally to the ball.

Contrast this to this garbage from TCU this year.

Notice how the TCU LB who is hitting the puller just “maintains gap integrity” by hitting the outside shoulder of the OL, but doesn’t hit with power and just plays weak. Against these counter plays you have to be the aggressor, if you sit back on your heels you’ll get run over.

This is just my perception, but from all of my listening and studying of Aranda, I think he really understands what Riley is trying to do offensively AND is great at conveying that to his players. I bet there is a lot of gameplanning where he is telling Baylor’s safeties, “Against this formation on 1st and 10, watch the H-back. If he does this, you trigger hard against the run. If he does this [other thing] though, get back to this spot and look for this route.” It just feels like Aranda understands what’s coming.

I mean this with zero disrespect towards last year’s Baylor defense, but on so many of the plays the individual defenders aren’t even playing that well. There are multiple examples of plays where Baylor stops OU for no gain even though the DL is getting blown off the ball. Aranda is just putting guys in the right spots.

Limit the Busts, Survive The Great Plays

Everyone who watches Oklahoma notices something: their QB Caleb Williams is capable of making some insane plays that nobody can defend. He’ll probably make two plays per half that leave you throwing up your hands and saying, “Well dang, I don’t know what Baylor could’ve done there.” So, those plays will happen. The key is to not give them anything for free. You can’t let WRs run free, you can’t have miscommunications on the back end, and you can miss easy opportunities for sacks and tackles for loss when they present themselves.

OU will score in every game they’re in because they have great talent and scheme. You just can’t give them anything for free.

What Does Baylor Need To Do Offensively?

Baylor’s offense can keep up with Oklahoma. Focusing on Baylor, there are two major things to keep an eye on.

First is the interior OL. Baylor’s LG-C-RG combo played their worst game of the season against TCU, it just simply wasn’t good enough. They struggled dealing with TCU’s slanting style and let too many DL beat them upfield. OU’s DL plays very similarly, and with much better players. If Baylor’s interior OL plays as bad as they did against TCU, it will be nearly impossible for Baylor to win. I imagine that room has been getting pumped with confidence and coaching this week, they have to play better.

Second is the offensive gameplan. After Oklahoma State dared Baylor to beat them deep and Baylor was slow to respond, they came out the next week and just bombed it all over West Virginia. On nearly every offensive drive in the first half vs WVU, Baylor attempted a deep ball downfield. WVU loaded the box but it didn’t matter because Thornton and Estrada were making they pay downfield.

I think Baylor is gonna have to do the same against OU. Oklahoma has seen the tape, they know that if you let Baylor steadily run down your throat you’re gonna have a bad time. They’re gonna stack the box, and they’re gonna slant their defensive lineman. Baylor has to be prepared to attack them downfield and mix it up in their running game. If you try and run a base wide zone running play into a slanting OU DL with a loaded box, you’re not gonna get yards. You have to pass them out of these looks. And in a game like this, you almost assuredly can’t afford to have a bad quarter, let alone half. Baylor can’t afford to get stopped early because they aren’t attacking downfield.

I expect Baylor’s gameplan to be: attacking downfield with max protect play action pass game, iso shots to WRs and Ben Sims in man coverage, lots of backside run concepts (like speed option, backside benders, and sweeps) to prevent OU from slanting too hard into the frontside run concepts.

Oklahoma’s defense is substandard, but they have good athletes and they’re gonna challenge you. They play a lot more man coverage than most teams, and their athletes up front are great. They challenge you to beat them athletically. This is a big game for Baylor’s WRs, particularly Tyquan Thornton, to win their 1v1 battles.

Flow of the Game

I always hesitate to say anything NEEDS to happen in order for Baylor to win. College football is crazy, and things never go exactly as you predict. You can spend all week breaking down individual matchups but then one team turns the ball over 4 times and shanks a punt and really that’s the ball game. However, I think a big key for this game is for Baylor to not get down early, for a couple of main reasons.

First, I think Baylor’s defense needs to play on their toes this game and not on their heels. Against OU’s offense, you have to be the aggressors, you have to be confident in reading your keys, and you have to trust yourself. If you start playing conservatively and let OU dictate the game, that’s when things start to break open. You’d like to think that Baylor’s defense will play remain the aggressors irrespective of the score, but we all know that football is a very emotional game and players are susceptible to swings in momentum. If Baylor is trading blows with OU early, I really like the prognosis for the game. If they get behind early and are busting coverages early, I’ll feel really bad. The real kicker is that if Baylor can get UP early and eat some clock and make OU feel like they have to score on every possession, that’s when you can really tee off.

Second, this is a big game for the Baylor fanbase. Fans will naturally be a bit apprehensive after Baylor laid an egg against TCU last week, the early game will be critical for determining whether this is a raucous environment all game vs a tentative one. Trading blows or getting up early on OU would go a long way towards ensuring it is a tough place for OU to operate.

Potential Distractions

A big question mark in this game is the departure of Joey McGuire. It’s less about Joey specifically, you can replace a position coach pretty easily with respect to gameplanning and everything else, but more about the potential distraction it caused with the Baylor staff and players.

This is all conjecture from me, I have no idea whether this is a thing or not. However, McGuire has hit the ground running at Tech and you’d expect that he might try to bring some guys he knows from Baylor with him, whether they be quality control guys, analysts, or even assistant coaches. Those decisions probably wouldn’t be made final until after the season, but if McGuire is interested in Baylor guy X, those initial conversations probably had to start this week, even if to just get an “absolutely not,” or “we’ll have to talk about that after the season.”

These coaches are professionals, and I have no doubt they’re all doing their best to remain focused on the game and give everything towards their players. But reality is reality, and I think it is fair to say that the departure of McGuire has probably had some impact on the staff/players/etc., the real question is how much.

Prediction

This game is very hard to make heads or tails of. When you look purely at the numbers of what these two teams have been all year, it’s pretty close to a tossup. OU might be a bit better, but Baylor is at home. However, OU is coming off a bye week and the week prior had their best game of the year against Texas Tech. Baylor had been rolling for a few weeks but just had their worst game of the year at TCU against a team they absolutely should have beaten.

Was the TCU game an aberration, or did TCU expose some more things that OU will take advantage of? Will Baylor’s interior OL get dominated by OU’s very talented and quick DL, or will they play better playing with more motivation after playing so poorly last week? Can they overcome the potential distraction of one of their most popular coaches leaving to coach another Big 12 team mid-season?

Basically no result in this game would surprise me. However, one thing I keep coming back to (with green and gold shaded glasses, no doubt) is how Baylor’s defense dominated OU last year with a much worse unit than they are sporting this year. Yes, Baylor’s pass coverage has been poor lately, but it’s all the same dudes as played last year that held OU in check. I think Aranda just gets how to stop OU and has the defense prepared for this game.

Another thing I really like for Baylor in this game is how they limit the total possessions for a game. I can’t find the current data on average possessions per game, but I know that Baylor has led the league in fewest drives per game all year. Whereas a typical college football averages each team having around 12 possessions, Baylor this year has been much closer to 10 if I recall correctly. What this does is put much more pressure on the offenses to capitalize on their opportunities. It exacerbates turnovers and makes each red zone possession more impactful (which is why it has been such a boon for Baylor this year that they’re so awesome in the red zone).

Both Baylor and OU this year have been awesome at converting scoring opportunities (ball inside your opponent’s 40) into points. Baylor is at 4.6 points per opp, OU is at 5.2. Both of these numbers are well above college football averages. If Baylor is able to keep this game down around 9 or 10 possessions, it will be decided by which team is better able to convert on their scoring opportunities and turnovers.

Because this game could go so many different ways, I feel comfortable enough predicting that Baylor respond will respond this week and play well and motivated at home after stinking it up at TCU. This absolutely will be a mental toughness game, and I like where Baylor is at there having a very calm and tough QB in Gerry Bohanon leading the team.

I think this game has low possessions and is a bit lower scoring than many figure. I’ll take Baylor 31-28.