Lawrence, Kansas- While Baylor’s first season didn’t go as planned, in year two, Baylor’s on the path to contending for Big 12 titles again. That may not happen this season—we’re only three games into the campaign—but the framework is there to return to the top of the league.
The 2020 Bears were abysmal on offense. That may be the understatement of all understatements. Aranda faced a choice after the futility of his 2020 offense: stay the course or recognize something had to change. Rather than blame the failures of the year one offense on the pandemic—or thinking he needed to give it more time—Aranda elected to hire Jeff Grimes and switch offenses. He installed Gerry Bohanon at quarterback and changed his philosophy to be more aggressive.
The Bears 45-7 victory doesn’t capture how much Baylor dominated this game. Yes, it’s Kansas, but good teams should dominate bad teams. Baylor did. The Bears had a couple of ill-timed turnovers that gave Kansas chances. It didn’t matter.
Kansas had a chance trailing just 14-7 at halftime. But the Bears responded. The Jayhawks wouldn’t score the rest of the game. Bohanon said after the game, “At halftime in the locker room we made up our minds that we were going to change the game around.” The first offensive play in the second half he hit RJ Sneed for a 69 yard touchdown—aided by Tyquan Thornton’s exceptional block down field. Bohanon noted, “That’s exciting for me to have a guy (Sneed) like that catching the ball for me. I’m excited for him, and I appreciate him for playing so hard today.”
The offensive line’s turnaround has made all of this possible. Through two weeks, Baylor has the nation’s best offensive line, per Pro Football Focus. Even if someone wants to argue Baylor doesn’t have the nation’s best line—a reasonable proposition through three weeks—the Bears are undoubtedly good in that facet of the game after the opprobrium that unit warranted last year. “You look in their eyes and see so much fight in them. You say, ‘what more can I do to match their energy? I appreciate those guys,” Bohanon said.
Even if the offensive line falters, Bohanon has blown away expectations. He remains in the pocket, poised and ready to go through his progressions. I asked Bohanon about his pocket presence after the contest, and he said, “I would say my pocket presence has been good. I’m very confident in the O-line. I’m very confident in my backs blocking. I’m really not worried too much with those guys because I know they’ve got my back.”
That improved offense has made Aranda aggressive in going for it on 4th down. After punting from the opponent 30 yard line early in his tenure—something Aranda rightfully admitted was a mistake after the decision—the 2021 Aranda went for it on 4th and 3 at the Baylor 46. That led to a Baylor touchdown. Then he went for it on 4th and 5 at the KU 39. The Bears converted again. His fourth down decisions—eschewed by the prevalence of conservative thinking in football coaches for eons—put Baylor in the best spot to win. I asked Aranda about going for it on 4th down, and he mentioned, “I know as a defensive coach for all those years, you’d get to 4th & 2 or 4th & 3 and you’d hope the punt came out and it’d almost be a sight or relief when it happened.”
Then there’s the defense. Baylor held Kansas to 166 total yards and a measly 3.3 yards per play. Despite Kansas quarterback Jason Bean’s success as a runner, the Bears managed to set the edge better in the second half to limit his opportunity to turn up field and make plays.
Matt Jones had a significant hit on Bean early, which set the tempo for Baylor’s shoutout second half. A defense powered by Aranda, Ron Roberts, and players like Terrel Bernard and Jalen Pitre is guaranteed to be solid. But JT Woods has taken another leap this season too. He’s not just capable of pick sixes; he’s been a force whenever Baylor misses a tackle near the line of scrimmage. After the game, Jones said, “JT, he’s a ballplayer, he’s a playmaker. I love the way he plays, and I love the things he does. He’s fast, he’s physical. He just comes and he brings it.”
Championships aren’t won by winning football games in Lawrence. Texas has learned that. But the way teams play in Lawrence and through the first two weeks of the season provide plenty of information about future weeks and seasons. The Bears have shown their on the right path to contending. Maybe that’s not this season, but with how bad the rest of the Big 12 looks, why can’t Baylor think it has a shot to make the title game? And if not this year, it won’t be long.