Today is one day closer to the kickoff of the 2012 college football season. As such, we’ll preview the No. 66 team in our Rant Sports 100 in 100 college football previews, the Baylor Bears.
Last season was a banner year for the Bears as they won 10 games, notched their first bowl victory in over 20 years, had their first winning record in Big 12 play and captured their first Heisman Trophy in school history thanks to Robert Griffin III. The Heisman winner is gone, opting for the NFL a season early, so now what? Well, for head coach Art Briles it’s going to be a rough transition losing the best player in college football last season but he is hoping that there won’t be a RGIII hangover that carries into this year.
Nick Florence is likely going to be the starter that replaces Griffin in the Baylor offense and it will be a tall task to say the least. Florence will try to prove that last season was not just a fluke because of one superstar leading the team and he has some experience to back him up. As a freshmen in 2009, when Griffin went down with an injury, Florence started seven games. Although five of them were losses they were still valuable minutes under center. Fast forward three years and it’s once again Florence’s offense to lead and he has exuded plenty of confidence this spring saying that a Big 12 Championship is the only option Baylor has this season. If he can settle in quickly and gain some confidence there is no reason he can’t throw for over 3,000 yards next season in Baylor’s offensive system.
There will also be big shoes to fill at running back to replace Tarrance Ganaway. He was overshadowed by Griffin last year but he put together a fantastic season himself rushing for a school-record 1,547 yards and 21 touchdowns and was eventually drafted by the New York Jets in the 6th round of the 2012 NFL Draft. They guy most likely to take over for Ganaway is Oregon transfer Lache Seastrunk. Coming out of high school is he was the number one RB recruit in the country but didn’t see much playing time behind La’Michael James and decided to transfer to Baylor. He will receive a fair share of the carries this upcoming season, along with Jarred Salubi, as Baylor will likely rely on the running game early in the season to get Florence comfortable under center.
The Bears will be in good shape at wide receiver as they return six of their top seven pass catchers from a season ago. That list of returning starters includes Terrance Williams (59 rec, 957 yds, 11 TD), Tevin Reese (51 rec, 877 yds, seven TD) and Lanear Sampson (42 rec, 572 yds, three TD). Those three guys will be the top targets for Florence next season.
Briles’ recruiting philosophy consists of finding quality lineman before seeking skilled positions. It is paying off in this cycle as the Bears are bringing in some of the better offensive tackles in the 2012 class. They may have to play some minutes right away as the Bears lost their two best offensive linemen from last season to the NFL Draft. However, the good thing on the O-line is that they are returning three starters that have combined to start 77 games so relying on freshmen isn’t their only option. One key player to watch is Redshirt-Freshmen Kyle Drango who will start at left tackle and protect Florence’s blind side.
The Bears lost their top two defensive linemen from last season so there will be new guys anchoring the line. Junior DE Terrance Lloyd (36 tackles, 7 for loss) and senior DE Gary Mason(26 tackles, 8 for loss) will likely be those guys. As for the interior of the D-line Kaeron Johnson and Nick Johnson will be the projected starters. With all of the new faces on the line the Bears are a little soft up front and will be susceptible to giving up a bunch of rushing yards this season.
Besides losing their leading tackler last season, they should be solid at linebacker as they return five of their top six backers. Ahmad Dixon (89 tackles, 5.5 for loss) is their leading linebacker that is returning and he will start at Rover. Sophomore Bryce Hager will overtake Rodney Chadwick at MLB and will anchor the linebacking group up the middle.
The defensive backfield will be the strength of Baylor’s defense as they are coming off a stellar season and are returning all four starters. This unit helped the Bears force the second most turnovers last season including 18 in their last five regular season games. Senior FS Mike Hicks (105 tackles, three INT), junior SS Sam Holl (113 tackles, three INT), junior CB KJ Morton (75 tackles, four INT) and junior CB Joe Williams (43 tackles, 12 pass break-ups) make up what could be the best secondary in the entire Big 12.
Schedule and Prediction
As whole this seems like a rebuilding year for the Bears. Their early season schedule is pretty easy and they should start 3-0. That’s when things get tough as they play at West Virginia, home vs. TCU and then at Texas in their next three games. Depending on how they handle those three games could determine their confidence heading into the rest of Big 12 play. Overall I think that they can’t overcome the loss of RGIII and finish 5-7, winning only two conference games, both at home against the two teams from Kansas.