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Baylor’s Offensive Debut Was a Tremendous Success

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NCAA Football: Baylor at Texas State Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

At surface level, Baylor’s offensive performance this past Saturday has left some fans unenthused or even pessimistic. I even read several different people saying that it didn’t look much different than 2020. This is insane. And I’m writing this article to prove that so.

Not only was Baylor’s offensive debut against Texas State a decent start, it was a tremendous success. To recognize why, you just need to look at the performance in context.

Remember, Baylor’s Offense Was Terrible In 2020

Many fans seem to remember that Baylor was horrendous on offense last year, but weirdly aren’t applying this to their analysis of the 2021 offense. As a quick recap, Baylor finished 91st in offensive SP+ and 87 in offensive FEI (two different advanced stats that attempt to quantify how good you are on either side of the ball). Baylor finished 122nd in yards per play. The offensive line was dejected, failing to execute in either pass protection or run blocking. The WRs similarly looked dejected as the offense had zero passing rhythm, couldn’t attack downfield, and usually resorted to the QB scrambling and working off schedule. This was a massive failure, as Baylor easily has one of the top 50 most talented offenses in the country, and probably much better. This is vital context for understanding the start of 2021.

Offenses Take Longer to Get Going

Offenses notoriously take longer to get in sync. It’s a safe rule of thumb that offenses probably won’t be fully in sync until about halfway through the season, and there is usually a big jump between the the first few games and the games that follow. Offense is predicated on timing and generating trust between players— a QB has to get the feel for his WRs running in game speed; an offensive lineman has to learn that he can trust the guy next to him to block who he is supposed to; a RB has to get the feel for game speed when attacking the line of scrimmage. All of this takes time.

This “offenses start slower” is evident when you look across college football. Baylor’s 5.6 yards per play against Texas State has them 38th in the country for offensive yards per play. In 2020, the teams who finished with 5.6 YPP didn’t even crack the top 50. Especially when you consider that YPP margins are usually bigger earlier in the season (due to FBS schools playing easy non-conference opponents), Baylor being 38th at 5.6 YPP demonstrates how slow offenses are starting.

Baylor Showed They Can Run Their New Offense

As has been said ad nauseam by this point, Baylor’s new offense is predicated around running their new running play—wide zone. Everything is based off of it. If they can’t run, they can’t execute their passing game which is fully based on play action. And as we know, the running game starts with the offensive lineman, a clear weakness for Baylor for the past 4 or 5 years.

Well, would you look at that, Baylor’s OL was named Pro Football Focus’ Offensive Line of the week. Baylor’s leader at left tackle, Connor Galvin, was named their LT of the week. Khalil Keith, the RT, graded out nearly as well as Galvin despite barely practicing over the past few weeks. LG Xavier Newman-Johnson and Center Jacob Gall both put out top 15 performances in the country at their respective positions. RG Grant Miller was just outside the top 25. This was easily the best offensive line performance of the past 3 or 4 years and probably longer than that. To have the OL look this cohesive in week 1 was an astonishing feat and OL coach Eric Mateos and offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes (who was a lifelong OL coach before becoming OC) deserve a ton of credit.

Behind this tremendous offensive line performance, Baylor had two running backs eclipse 100 yards for the first time in only God knows how long. After finishing 122nd in rushing yards per game (90 yards) in 2020, I’d bet good money that Baylor will break their 2020 rushing total of 812 yards in their first 3 games after rushing for 241 yards against Texas State. Trestan Ebner demonstrated a renewed toughness and leadership and led the nation in broken tackles (a stat that, good for him, heavily correlates with NFL RB success).

After a fumble on his first carry which thwarted an otherwise very successful opening possession for Baylor, Abram Smith similarly had a great game. He demonstrated the toughness, vision, and overall athleticism that had me so high on him coming into this year.

And finally, perhaps most importantly, Gerry Bohanon far exceeded my expectations. Some people have pooh-poohd his performance when mainly looking at his mundane statline of 15-24 for 148 yards (a meager 6.2 yards per attempt, you want to see that number above 7 at least). But again, this statline lacks vital context. The most important thing for the QB to do in this offense is reliably and accurately hit the short and medium concepts coming off play action. Gerry demonstrated that thoroughly.

The other thing Gerry did was demonstrate that he could use his strong arm to threaten the entire field. This is something Baylor has not had at QB since at least 2016.

The only thing that was missing was a connection one of the few deep attempts. It’s notable that Baylor did not attempt to go down field much because their run game was working so well even with Texas State stacking the box. But all of the handful of attempts missed for one reason or another. It just so happens that one reason was that the ref missed the call on the field and replay was unavailable to reverse the call on a clear touchdown.

If you add this 22 yard completion (on a throw that went ~45 yards in the air) to Gerry’s numbers, you get him north of 7 yards per attempt, add a TD, and fans probably feel much better about his performance because his stats look better. Which of course is stupid because he made the throw whether they counted it or not!

All of this to say—about the OL being incredible, the RBs looking great, and Gerry showing he can operate the offense outside of connecting on the few deep attempts—Baylor, in week 1 when many other teams looked hapless, showed that they have the foundation set for a pretty dang good offense. They showed that they can execute basic fundamentals, such as the OL handling a stunt by the DL, that they simply failed at last year.

If Gerry starts reliably hitting deep shots, the potential goes through the roof. But regardless, Baylor showed in week 1 that this offense will be sound, it will be coherent, and it will be well coached.

The Game Wasn’t As Close As the Final Score Showed

I know that points like this often come across poorly; at the end of the day, the score is all that matters for whether you won or lost the game. But the score isn’t the only thing that matters for predicting future performance or for ascertaining how well you played. As Matt Rhule said all the time, “You’re never as good as you think you are after a win, and you’re never as bad as you think you are after a loss.”

Let me use the first half of the game as an example. Baylor had 3 real possessions in the first half. On the first possession, they promptly marched down the field—gaining 46 yards on 4 plays—until RB Abram Smith fumbled and Baylor lost possession. On their second possession, Gerry Bohanon threw a TD pass to Josh Fleeks that improperly wasn’t called one, resulting in Baylor settling for a missed 43 yard FG. Finally on the third possession, Baylor calmly marched down the field—76 yards on 13 plays—and finished the drive with a TD run by Abram Smith. This was 7 points on 3 possessions on what very feasibly should have been 21. If Baylor is entering the half up 28-7 (because of the pick 6 by JT Woods), Baylor is likely playing a decent amount of second stringers in the second half and Baylor fans feel much differently. But perceptions shouldn’t be as dependent on fluky events like losing a fumble or the stadium not having instant replay capabilities.

Overall, the stats bear this out. Baylor finished with an offensive success rate—a measure of how many of your plays are successful—of 47% (a very good number) compared to Texas States’ 38%. Baylor outgained Texas State 5.6 YPP to 3.5. They forced 3 turnovers while Texas State forced 1. These kind of stats usually correlate to a 21-24 point victory, not the weird 9 point margin we were left with. Yes, there were stupid penalties that need to be corrected, but this stuff needs to be evaluated independent of Baylor’s offensive performance.

But It Was Just Against Texas State! We Expect More!

To this I say just read the paragraphs at the beginning of this article again. Iowa State, a unanimous top 10 entering the season—largely on the back of it’s should-be great offense that returns absolutely everyone from 2020—put up a measly 16 points against an FCS school. Washington, a school in an alleged Power 5 conference, lost to an FCS school. Oklahoma, with its supposed Heisman trophy contending QB and always great offense, did only a bit better than Baylor with 6.0 yards per play against Tulane, a team with the projected 66th best defense in the country according to FEI.

Texas State WAS terrible on defense last year. But they also replaced nearly everybody, including their previous best players, with transfers from Power 5 schools. Maybe they’ll suck again. Maybe they won’t. But either way, we don’t know yet and those pronouncements are better served after more games have been played.

But even if they are terrible, Baylor’s offense showed that THEY are different. Baylor’s 2020 offense would not have looked nearly as competent against this 2021 Texas State defense. They might’ve moved the ball, but it would have been with off schedule scrambling after the OL mixed up a protection and players like Trestan Ebner simply making plays. 2021 Baylor doesn’t have to rely on scrambling off schedule. They have an offense, they’re executing it, and their performance against Texas State should only make fans more excited for the vision that offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes is executing.

What We Can Expect From Here

This article isn’t arguing that Baylor’s offense was perfect against Texas State, nor serving to predict that Baylor will have a great offense for all of 2021. With a new offensive scheme and a first year starting QB, there will certainly be some ups and downs. The purpose of this article was to demonstrate that many fans’ qualms about the first game were unfounded. Baylor set the foundation. Now they have to continue the work.