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Assessing Where the 2014 Baylor Bears Are After 3 Games

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The Good, the Bad, and the Inconclusive of the 2014 Baylor Bears season so far.

Vaughn Ridley

I fully intended to do a post this week looking at the major concerns going into this season, how we've performed in those areas so far, and how things look going forward as part of a larger series looking back at the young season so far.

I never got around to that.

Instead, I've decided to take a look at the team as we wrap up the first bye week of the season, starting with what the advanced stats say about the Baylor Bears so far and then working through the Good, the Bad, and the Inconclusive from what we've seen.

2014 FootballOutsiders Metrics for Baylor. Last week's numbers, so much as they exist, are in parenthesis. Dashes (---) mean there are no such numbers to report.

Category Baylor
(3-0)
2014 F/+ Rk 11( 13)
2014 F/+ Special Teams
---
2014 FEI Rk 24 (23)
2014 S&P+ Rk 6 (7)

Baylor Offense
2014 S&P+
3
2014 Success Rate
54
2014 Points Per Play
1
2014 Rushing S&P+ Rk 55
2014 Passing S&P+ Rk 1
2014 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 6
2014 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 1

Baylor Defense
2014 S&P+
48
2014 Success Rate
1
2014 Points Per Play
1
2014 Rushing S&P+ Rk 3
2014 Passing S&P+ Rk 1
2014 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 1
2014 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 1

After the first three games of the season, Baylor sits a comfortable 11th in FootballOutsiders' F/+ ranking, which combines Brian Fremeau's FEI and Bill Connelly's S&P+.  The latter likes us at this point quite a bit more than the former for reasons I don't entirely understand, but I expect that those two will converge over the coming weeks.  They typically do.

The Baylor Offense

Looking at the offense as a whole -- Baylor owns the best offense in the land so far in points per play, on passing downs, and in passing, specifically.  We're so good throwing the ball that it overshadows much of our deficiencies so far running it, where we're way down at #55.

We're also #1 in scoring offense and #1 in total offense per the NCAA's stats.

The Good

Passing Offense -- In a word: brilliant.  Whether it's Bryce Petty or Seth Russell, and no matter how many wide receivers we've missed, Baylor's passing offense has been fantastic.  With Antwan Goodley, Levi Norwood, Corey Coleman, and Clay Fuller out for all or most of the season so far, we really haven't missed a step in the passing offense.  Our two QBs are #1 and #2 in ESPN's Total QBR rating, the team as a whole is #3 in total Passing Efficiency and Passing Yards per Completion.  Whatever problems we might have on offense, throwing the ball isn't one of them.

K.D. Cannon-- I could have included him in the portion above and didn't because he deserves the additional attention.  Through 3 games, the true freshman leads the country in receiving yards and average yards per catch, and is #1 on the team in receiving TDs, to boot.  A lot of people wondered if Baylor would take a step back on offense without Tevin Reese stretching the field vertically.  We have not.

Pass Blocking -- And that's in large part because our pass blocking has been fantastic.  Baylor is one of four teams in the entire country not to give up a single sack this season.  Bookend tackles Spencer Drango and Troy Baker have been fantastic in this area, and Desmine Hilliard, Blake Muir, and Kyle Fuller have been more than serviceable on the inside.  It doesn't matter who you play; not giving up a single sack through 3 games is extremely impressive.

Turnovers -- Through 3 games, Baylor has a grand total of 4 turnovers lost: 3 fumbles and 1 interception.  Petty has, of course, zero interceptions, because Bryce Petty doesn't throw interceptions.  4 turnovers lost earns us a tie for 50th in the country, but I still consider that a good thing since we haven't seen it be a huge problem.

The Bad

You probably expected to see our rushing offense get a mention here, but I'm pushing them to the next category and will tell you why down there.  There's really not been anything offensively that has me seriously concerned at this point.  I could understand the argument that our rushing offense should be here, though.

The Inconclusive

Run Offense -- I'm putting this under "inconclusive" for a couple of reasons.  First and foremost, our rushing offense has been extremely vanilla so far with Bryce Petty missing time due to injury and one of our top two backs, Devin Chafin, also out for the last two games.  The offensive line hasn't really gelled like expected, especially at the center and left guard spots, but I expect that will change going forward.  Muir is more than capable; I just think making the transition inside from tackle requires a mindset he may not yet possess.  He'll get there.

Also, going back to the first point, we really haven't seen much at all of our rushing offense yet, schematically.  Baylor has been content to pound the ball inside so far this season, eschewing the edge in favor of simply pushing people around.  Yes, it's concerning that against SMU, NWState, and Buffalo we haven't been able to do that like we probably expected, but this situation is circular.  If we don't present a true test on the edge, teams can stack the middle.  If teams stack the middle, we'll be less successful there.  Once Baylor opens things up with the outside runs, I expect things will improve in the middle.

It should be noted that despite running as many plays as we do, we're #3 in tackles for loss allowed.  So we may not be getting all of the push we want, but we're not getting beaten, either.

The Baylor Defense

On defense, you're probably wondering how a team with so many #1 rankings per FO's stats can be ranked 48th in S&P+.  The answer, as always: opponent adjustments.  By pure stats, Baylor has an argument at having the best defense in college football through 3 games.  In terms of what has actually happened, it's been that good.  Once you adjust for the offenses faced, things don't look as rosy.  Still, there's plenty to be excited about.

By absolute stats (meaning unadjusted), Baylor's defense is #5 in scoring defense and #3 in total defense.

The Good

Defensive Line-- Everything we billed it to be and more at this point.  Led by Shawn Oakman and Andrew Billings, Baylor's DL has been the biggest single factor in a defense that is #13 in Havoc Rate, #2 in team sacks (15 so far), #5 in team tackles for loss (28 so far), and #18 in team passing efficiency defense. They've been so good, in fact, that we really haven't gotten a solid look yet at the linebackers or the secondary.  Even so, several individuals in those units deserve praise, including...

CB Xavien Howard-- I talked him up before the season as a potential breakout player, and so far, he's broken out.  If Oakman didn't exist, Howard would be the story of the 2014 defense so far.  According to the NCAA, he's defended 3 passes and intercepted 2 more through 3 games.  Both of those stats lead the team and combined put him at #18 in the country thus far.  What's more, we've seen all three opponents simply refuse to throw his direction whatsoever, the ultimate mark of respect for a CB.

The Bad

The Second Half vs. Buffalo-- I needed something bad, ok?  We've talked ad nauseum why Baylor played so poorly on defense after halftime against the Bulls.  We don't need to do it again.  But it was pretty bad all things considered, except that it gave us plenty of things to work on in the off week.

The Inconclusive

The Linebackers-- I could have probably included them in the Good category and not thought too much about it.  In fact, I might just do that before publishing this post, if only because our major contributors at this spot-- Bryce Hager, Aiavion Edwards, Collin Brence, Taylor Young, and Travon Blanchard-- have all been impressive at different points this season.  Hager has been Hager, steady and dependable.  We've used him in pass coverage more than I expected, and he's played virtually every snap with the first defense this year.  One play against Buffalo aside, Edwards has been a worthy replacement for Eddie Lackey in overall athleticism.  Brence and Blanchard have played more together than I think any of us expected, and both seem to be doing just fine.  Of them all, Young has been perhaps the most impressive, particularly in his blitzes.

All that said, and in part because our DL has been so good, it's hard to get a true handle on this position because they haven't been tested.  We haven't faced a passing offense capable of exploiting the weaknesses we know we have, nor have we played a team committed to running the ball early and often or capable of wearing us down in the slightest.  Until we do, this is inconclusive.

The Secondary (sans-Howard)-- For much of the same reason as the linebackers, I'm including the secondary here for now.  We've seen a handful of long passes that should have been made against us along with a handful of impressive plays in the backfield or in coverage. CB Ryan Reid has seen good and bad plays, specifically, as teams shy away from throwing at Howard and hone in on him.  He's still very young and learning how to be a starter, and I have every confidence he will prove himself up to the task.

Everything Else

The Good

Perseverance Through Injuries-- Sounds weird to say it like this, but Baylor has missed a ton of important players at various points through the first three games and not missed a beat.  When Petty couldn't go against Northwestern State, Seth Russell threw down a record for yardage and touchdowns in the first half of his first start.  With Goodley, Coleman, Fuller, and Norwood all out, the aforementioned Cannon and his freshman cohort Davion Hall have stepped up to fill the void.  Junior Jay Lee is finally living up to his promise, as well, and leads the team in receptions.  Jordan Feuerbacher also stepped in as the third of our true freshmen on offense with Tre'Von Armstead limited by a knee injury.

Thankfully, we haven't seen any major injuries on defense (knock on everything wood within 20 feet), so that unit has been able to play with a full complement the entire season so far.

McLane Stadium-- Gorgeous.  Perfect.  Choose a good adjective and use it.

The 2015 Baylor Bears-- Probably weird to include on a list about the 2014 team, but stay with me.  Because of everything said above, particularly the play of our young wide receivers and backup QB, as well as our defense, where we start just one senior, I'm extremely excited for the 2015 Baylor Bears.  Yes, we'll probably lose Oakman to the Draft if he continues to terrorize opposing offenses, so he's basically another senior.  Still, we're young in the secondary and across the rest of the line, and there's plenty of reason to believe the team could be extremely good again a year from now.

The Bad

The Kicking Game-- Will get better because it can't get much worse.  I don't know if this can be a true Achilles Heel when we're outscoring teams by 50 points per game, but when we don't do that ...

I feel pretty strongly that Chris Callahan's issues are almost entirely mental, and he'll figure it out.

The Inconclusive

I've got nothing.

-----

The Bottom Line

If you're a Baylor fan, you should feel pretty confident about how things have gone in this young season.  The offense looks as dominant as we've come to expect, the defense hasn't taken the step back many expected, and actually might have improved, and our special teams continue to be special.  Aside from a more successful running game, there's not much else I would have hoped to see through our first three games.  We're ranked as a Top 10 team and look the part every time we take the field.  We're now set to kick off our conference schedule with away games at Iowa State and Texas before returning home for TCU.

I can't think of anything else, so I'll open it up to you guys and gals.  What are your takeaways from the season so far?  What has you concerned, excited, or somewhere in between?