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Monday Thoughts: Baylor Announces Itself As A Big 12 Contender

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NCAA Football: Iowa State at Baylor Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

First: On The Importance Of Expectations

Not to overstate things, but expectations are sort of everything in life. Have you ever been hosted for a meal, or had a friend take you out to some restaurant and say, “This is the best [X] you’ll ever have.” Well, even if that bears true, that’s now just meeting expectations. Much better to set the bar lower / more realistic and be surprised! The only thing I’m willing to say is incredible is my peanut thai curry. But beyond that, be careful.

When it comes to football, expectations fully determine whether you are disappointed, satisfied, or elated with a result. For Baylor against Texas State, Texas Southern, and Kansas, a “win” simply wasn’t good enough because we knew that, for Baylor to be a player in the Big 12, they had to dominate those teams. The expectation was for domination, Baylor did in each of those games, and they largely met expectations.

Thus we come to Baylor’s win vs Iowa State this past Saturday. Iowa State was favored by 7. A lot of Baylor fans disagreed with that, and rightly so. I would’ve figured the line would’ve settled closer to ISU favored by 3.5 or so. But by and large, the vast, vast majority of predictions I saw revolved around the idea, “Really tough, close game where either team could come out on top.”

Well, that’s exactly what happened. Baylor survived a very bad 4th quarter offensively and it came down to the last play. It was a tight, tight game. The post-game win expectancy (an overall stat which looks at all the individual stats in a game and predicts a winner) had Iowa State winning 54% of the time. That’s about as close as it gets to a tossup game in college football. Most games are way above 80% for one team or the other. Funnily enough, back in 2019 when Baylor and Iowa State played another nail-biter, Baylor’s post-game win expectancy was 52%. Count our luck that Baylor pulled out both of those games.

But here’s the rub: you don’t have tossup games unless you make mistakes! Very rare are the games where two teams play their absolute best and just slug it out to the end making great play after great play. In some sense scoring requires a mistake by the defense. Most touchdowns aren’t scored on perfectly thrown balls to a WR making a great catch over a defender who has perfect coverage. Especially in college, on pretty much any big play there is either a defender taking a bad angle, a box defender missing a gap assignment, a DB biting on a fake by the WR, etc. For defense, you could use the heuristic “one big mistake means a first down, two or three means a touchdown.”

NCAA Football: Iowa State at Baylor Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Which brings me to Baylor’s second half offensive performance against Iowa State. The offense didn’t play well. After a very promising first offensive drive—where they moved the ball much like they did all first half—ended in a fumble, Baylor did a whole lot of nothing the rest of the half. After that first drive of the second half, Baylor had 4 possessions and one first down. They still ran the ball OK, but they kept shooting themselves in the foot on crucial downs like 2nd and 6 when they needed another positive gain. Furthermore, for the first time all season, Gerry didn’t get rid of the ball on time and took two sacks. Things just looked out of sorts.

After a first half which looked like Baylor could run away with the game with a relatively comfortable victory, the game ended much closer than it had to. Ending the game on a sour taste always leaves well, a sour taste, in fans’ mouths. If Baylor had simply flipped its halves—scoreless in the first half, dominant in the second half—Baylor fans would probably be feeling much better.

But close games are also rarely close the entire time. Football is a weird, unpredictable game. Some games have teams going back and forth the entire time. Others have runs or halves where one team dominates the other. And especially with Baylor playing with so few possessions (9 total this game, very low), every mistake is magnified.

So, back to expectations. Most fans expected a close, hard-fought game (and naturally, most predicted Baylor edging out!). That’s exactly what we got. Fans rightly are critical of the mistakes Baylor made in the second half, but without those mistakes Baylor runs away with the game.

To be clear, this isn’t an argument that the final score tells you all you need to know about whether to be happy or not. In some games—like Baylor vs Texas State—the final score is close but the game wasn’t really close at all. That was not the case in this game vs Iowa State. As I said about the post-game win expectancy stat, the game was about as close as it can get. Baylor had a solid edge in efficiency, but Iowa State was more explosive. Either team could’ve won and it would’ve “made sense.”

Iowa State has a thoroughly dominant defense. It’s the best front 7 that Baylor will play all year, and it’s not even close. Their DE, #55 Petersen, played one of the best defensive games I’ve ever personally seen. For Baylor to get 5.7 yards per play against them with a 47% success rate was a tremendous showing for an offense that is: A) not even fully installed, and B) just named Gerry the starter like 6 weeks ago. We expected that this offense would start slowly and ramp up as the season goes along. For Baylor to perform well against the best defense they’ll face all year is a massive win.

Thus, my argument. Baylor fans expected a close, tough game. That’s exactly what we got. A close game necessarily entails mistakes and good plays from both teams. That’s exactly what we got. Does this mean you gloss over the mistakes and don’t worry about how they’ll rear their head in the future? No. But it does mean you probably got what you expected and shouldn’t be overly worried.

So How Good Is Baylor?

Well, the obvious answer to that is “we don’t know yet!” and that’s true. In some sense with college football, because of the small sample size, it can take nearly all season to get a good grasp of how good a team is. But of course, the job of an evaluator is to take what he has and make predictions.

Ever since Baylor opened the season against Texas State, I’ve been sounding the alarm that Baylor’s offense is gonna be quite good. Just how good? That’s still up in the air. But it was obvious to me after that first game that this was a top 50 or so national offense with the potential to be much better. For an offense that—after finishing in the 90s or below in pretty much every offensive metric in 2020—was predicted to finish in the 90s again by every advanced stat, this is a tremendous success.

Syndication: The Topeka Capital-Journal Evert Nelson/The Capital-Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC

As I argued in my season preview, a top 50 offense paired with Baylor’s defense is virtually guaranteed a bowl game (which was the most common expectation for this season I heard from fans). To be in the hunt for the Big 12 game, they needed to push closer to top 30 or 25. That’s where I think this offense is and where it is headed.

As I stated previously, most advanced projection systems—who aren’t able to take scheme changes and coaching changes into account (you might think to yourself that they should, but imagine how you would effectively apply that across all 130 teams)—had Baylor’s offense down in the 80s or 90s this year (out of 130 FBS teams). After just 4 weeks, in which most systems still have preseason projections built-in (it makes the numbers better—If you were to only use this season’s data early in the season, the models would be horrible), Baylor has already risen from 90th in offensive SP+ to 58th. That’s a truly monumental jump in 4 weeks (and with about half the value being preseason projections, that means Baylor’s 2021 offense has played like a top 30 unit).

I hate using stats to back this stuff up, but in some sense they are more objective and more likely to be believed than just me saying, “Trust me, I’ve cut up every offensive snap of Baylor in 2021, they’re much better.” But if you want to see those cutups make sure to follow me on twitter @Travis_Roeder, I try to post a bunch of clips every Sunday and throughout the week.

But suffice to say, the numbers and film review are all telling the same story. Baylor is much, much improved on offense in 2021, and it looks like they’ve improved enough to be a significant contender in the 2021 Big 12. In recent history, there are usually 3 or 4 teams that are still “in the hunt” to make the title game with 2 or so weeks left in the season. There’s a long way to go, but Baylor is showing that they have what it takes to be in that group. There are still a large group of teams—Oklahoma, Iowa State, Texas, Oklahoma State—that probably feel the same way, but Baylor is in that group.

Baylor—again, still with a bunch of preseason data baked in that did not like them—currently sits at 4th in the Big 12 in SP+. They’re at 26th overall, behind Oklahoma (6th), Iowa State (15th), and Texas (20th). Behind Baylor are teams like Oklahoma State (35th), West Virginia (44th), and TCU (45th). Let me reiterate again: these numbers are not the end-all be all. I’m just citing them to provide some context and “objective” back up for what we’re all seeing on the field.

Given what we’ve seen this season and with Baylor already getting a win over Iowa State, a team who will be a conference contender, it seems eminently fair to think they are officially “in the hunt.” After starting the season projected for around 5.5-6 wins by most systems, Baylor’s up to 8.5 expected wins per SP+.

Thus, while much remains to be learned, I think it is totally fair to expect that Baylor is not the 8th best team in the Big 12 (like they were picked preseason), but instead probably in the top 5. Does this mean that they will win every game from here on out? Of course not. The Big 12 champ has had at least one conference loss for ... a while now. I can’t remember the last undefeated conference champ. For Baylor to make the title game, they’re gonna need to stay at 2 or fewer conference losses (remember, BYU is not in conference yet!). To make the title game with 3 conference losses is possible but requires some weird stuff; though the way college football is going this year, maybe this is the year for the weird stuff.

There is a lot ahead of Baylor football, it definitely shouldn’t get ahead of itself, and fans shouldn’t either. Enjoy the season. Last year Baylor was woeful in a way that made it extremely difficult to watch. This year the team is cohesive, has an identity, and is playing complementary football with both good offense and defense. At worst, this team is good. At best, they could make the title game and then who knows what happens from there. College football is a wild sport—let’s enjoy the ride.