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Florida v Utah Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

Baylor hopes to redeem themselves from their disappointing loss in week one with another home contest, this time against the twelfth-ranked Utes of Utah. Unfortunately, they’ll have to do so with their starting quarterback, Blake Shapen, who incurred an MCL injury against Texas States. The Bears will also be without starting safety Devin Lemear and JACK linebacker Garmon Randolph. For those healthy enough to suit enough, here’s what they’ll face.

Utah on offense

Under fifth-year offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, Utah employs a run-focused offensive scheme with heavy use of tight ends and running backs in the passing game, and to great success. In 2022, Utah had the eleventh-best scoring offense in the country and ninth-most efficient rushing offense with 5.6 yards per carry. Their tight end Dalton Kincaid was their leading receiver (by yards, receptions, and touchdowns), and their running back #2 Micha Bernard was their third-leading receiver (by receptions).

It’s not a question what Utah wants to do against Baylor — establish the run and isolate tight ends and running backs against linebackers in coverage — what is unknown is who they are going to rely on to do it.

Star quarterback #7 Cam Rising missed Utah’s first game due to a torn ACL sustained last January. On Monday, head coach Kyle Whittingham said Rising was “day-to-day” and practicing “completely no-limits”. If Rising does play, Baylor needs to be on their A-game. In 2022, Rising had 3,034 passing yards, 26 passing touchdowns, 8 interceptions, and a 64.7% completion percentage. He also tacked on 465 rushing yards and 6 rushing touchdowns.

If Rising doesn’t play, Baylor will...still need to bring their A-game. His backup, #16 Bryson Barnes, had a solid 159 yard, 66.7%, two touchdown (one passing, one rushing), and zero interception game against Florida to start the season. Utah might also mix in #13 Nate Johnson for some snaps at QB, primarily as a run threat. Johnson led the team with 45 rushing yards and one touchdown on six carries.

Regardless of who’s under center for the Utes, we know who’s going to be blocking for them on the line. Returning from last year are their starting left guard #51 Keaton Bills, right guard #52 Michael Mokofisi, and right tackle #78 Sataoa Laumea. Bills is the anchor of the line; in 2022, he scored near 70 on run blocking and pass blocking per PFF, allowed only one sack, and did not commit any penalties. Both Mokofisi and Laumea struggled a bit more, scoring below average in pass blocking in 2022 by PFF. Laumea in particular was a weak link, allowing 4 sacks and committing 5 penalties, both the most by any offensive lineman. Against Florida, Laumea had the highest run blocking grade and third highest pass blocking grade, so perhaps 2023 will be a much better season for him. Newcomer to the line, freshman #55 Spencer Fano had a sub-par 47 run blocking grade and abysmal 33 pass blocking grade despite the team as a whole giving up zero sacks.

At the skill positions, pay attention to receivers #17 Devaughn Vele and #10 Money Parks. Last season, Vele was tied for the most targets in the passing game and second on the team in receiving yards with 695. Parks, while targeted half as often, has serious big play potential and led all wide receivers with 15.9 yards per reception. Against Florida, he had a 70-yarder on the very first play of the game.

The running back position also features two players who are going to split most of the snaps, #3 Ja’Quinden Jackson and #2 Micah Bernard. Bernard was the second-leading rusher last season with 539 yards on 107 attempts, but Jackson wasn’t far behind with 530 yards on 79 attempts. Notably, Jackson had twice as many touchdowns as Bernard with 9.

Finally, at tight end, it’s too early to tell who is going to replace Dalton Kincaid as the lead receiving option. The natural pick is #80 Brant Kuithe who made the All-Pac-12 second-team in 2019, 2020, and 2021 before missing most of last season due to injury. He did not play against Florida, and I haven’t seen if he’s going to play or not against Baylor. If he doesn’t, I expect #87 Thomas Yassiman to get the majority of targets. Against Florida, he had 3 receptions for 15 yards.

Utah on defense

Utah’s base defense is a 4-2-5 that relies on its defensive front to generate pressure on the quarterback while the extra defensive back provides an additional advantage in the passing game. Last season, the Utes were very successful in creating pressure, recording 44 sacks, good for eighth in the country. But fortunately for Baylor, their leading pass rushers are now in the NFL. So who’s taking their place?

The depth chart lists #81 Connor O’Toole, #58 Junior Tafuna, #57 Keanu Tanuvasa, and #7 Van Fillinger as the starting defensive linemen; however, both O’Toole and Tafuna missed the Florida game, and it’s unclear whether they will make the road trip to Waco. In their place were #83 Jonah Elliss and #0 Logan Fano who filled in more than admirably. Elliss led the way against Florida with two sacks and an overall PFF grade of 74.4. Fano also tacked on a sack and QB hurry, though he had a mediocre run defense rating.

Intended starter Tanuvasa is a redshirt freshman with one career start and two career sacks, so not much to extrapolate from. Fillinger had a stellar freshman year for Utah in 2021 with 5.5 sacks and was on pace to lead the team in sacks in 2022 before suffering an injury in the middle of the season. He didn’t get as many snaps against Florida as you’d expect given his position on the depth chart, but that could change on Saturday.

Moving back to linebacker, #20 Lander Barton and #3 Levani Damuni took the vast majority of snaps last week. Barton, as you’d expect from the former Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year, had a solid start to 2022, recording three QB hurries, three tackles, and an overall defensive grade of 68.5 on PFF. Stanford transfer Damuni had a rockier first game with no QB hurries, four tackles, and a coverage grade of 53.4 on PFF.

Given the 4-2-5 scheme, there are five starting defensive backs on the depth chart. #4 JaTravis Broughton and #5 Zemaiah Vaughn man the outside while #15 Tao Johnson picks up the slot receiver. Both Broughton and Vaughn are experienced defensive backs who had the majority of snaps at corner last season. Vaughn is probably the better defender, holding QBs to a 50% completion percentage and one touchdown with eight pass breakups last season. Broughton, on the other hand, gave up a team-high four touchdowns in coverage and 63.6% QB completion percentage.

Johnson made his first start last week and struggled to say the least. PFF have him a 57.6 coverage grade, the lowest of the starters, and a 26.2 tackling grade, the lowest of all Utes. Florida seemed to pick on the redshirt freshman, targeting him a team-high of nine times.

At safety are #8 Cole Bishop and #28 Sione Vaki. Going back to last year, both were equally likely to rush the QB (about eight percent of the time), but Bishop was much more productive when doing so, notching 21 total pressures and two sacks compared to Vaki’s three hurries and zero sacks. Vaki was a more reliable run defender, though, with a 5.4% missed tackle rate compared to Bishop’s 17.7%. That said, Bishop was the second-leading tackler on the team. Both are similar in coverage — Bishop gives up a higher completion percentage while Vaki gives up a higher yards per reception.

Overall thoughts

This game is going to go one of two ways. In one scenario, our pass rush is stymied by an offensive line that rarely gives up a sack, Cam Rising has all the time he needs to find Money Parks on deep routes, the duo of Ja’Quinden Jackson and Micah Bernard keep Utah in manageable situations averaging 6 yards per carry, and Thomas Yassiamn has a field day picking on our LBs in coverage on third down. Baylor QB Sawyer Robertson is not ready to be the full-time starter, our wide receivers find no room playing against five defensive backs, and Utah Defensive Coordinator Morgan Scalley uses his years of experience coaching against BYU to implement a run defense that befuddles our wide zone scheme. Utah wins 56 to 14.

In another scenario, and one I infinitely prefer, Baylor’s defensive line finds life against freshman Spencer Fano at left tackle and does what Florida could not do and bring Bryson Barnes to the ground. Our corners are able to keep up with Vele and Parks in one-on-one coverage, allowing our safeties to help in the run game, and Corey Gordon takes over at STAR and prevents Utah’s tight ends from running free all day. Sawyer Robertson adds a run threat to the passing game, neutralizing Utah’s pass rush, and Monaray Baldwin / Jonah Burton pick on Tao Johnson from the slot. Dominic Richardson trucks Cole Bishop for multiple long runs. Baylor wins 31 to 28.

Which is more likely? FEI gives Utah a 78% chance of winning with an expected score of 50 to 20. SP+ gives Utah a 77% chance of winning but with a much closer expected score of 35 to 22. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised by either, but what’s the fun of college football if there wasn’t an upset every now and then?

Statistics courtesy of Utah Athletics, ESPN, Pro Football Focus, and Sports-Reference.