The Baylor Bears possess what it takes to win another Big 12 title: depth at running back, a stable of wide-receiver weapons and a quarterback that is an early-season Heisman candidate, but success in 2014 will depend on how the offensive line and the seven new starters on defense get acclimated to their new responsibilities.
One starter, junior left tackle Spencer Drango, is all that remains from an offensive line that anchored the No.1 offense in the nation in 2013 — but even he will be on the mend after having offseason back surgery. Joining him up front as projected starters include: sophomore guard LaQuan McGowan center Kyle Fuller, junior guard Desmine Hilliard and senior tackle Troy Baker. When you include the two-deep unit, there is experience, but how will they respond as a unit when the season starts?
The line playing well could help senior quarterback Bryce Petty earn a trip to NYC as a Heisman finalist. After passing for 4,200 yards, 32 TDs and only three interceptions, there are some that feel that he should have been invited last season. If he replicates those numbers this season, there is no doubt that he will be invited and could end up winning the award.
Led by senior receiver Antwan Goodley (71 rec. 1,339 yards), the Bears have a stable of talented receivers at Petty’s disposal to pad his stats. Joining Goodley as starters are sophomore Corey Coleman (35 rec. 527 yards) and senior Levi Norwood (47 rec. 733 yards) They also have a pair of talented true freshmen, KD Cannon and Davion Hall, who could see action as well.
Even with the many receiving options, Baylor has a balanced offense, boasting the No. 1 rushing offense (259.7 ypg) last season. Shock Linwood steps in as the new starter and brings a lot of past productivity as he rushed for 881 yards and eight touchdowns as a back-up. Sophomore Devin Chafin should see his opportunities (51 carries 304 yards) increase as the primary back-up. True freshman Terence Williams is also expected to see some carries in the rotation as well.
The defense may not have been the rock stars like the offense, but they got the job done last season and finished 28th nationally in total defense, giving up only 360.3 ypg. Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett will have the daunting task of replacing seven starters this season, so there could be a slight dip in productivity.
In addition to defensive leaders Jamal Palmer, the returning sacks leader with five, and Shawn Oakman, the leader in tackles-for-loss with 12.5, the team boasts a deep defensive line that includes last-year starters at defensive tackle, junior Beau Blackshear and sophomore Byron Bonds, as well as Boise St. transfer junior Sam Ukwuachu.
The back seven is where things become uncertain for the defense as only two starters return: middle linebacker senior Bryce Hager and junior safety Terrell Burt. There will also be a lot of youth playing back there as the team currently projects nine underclassmen in the two-deep rotation of both units.
Baylor kicks off the season with a home game against in-state opponent SMU and Northwestern St. before traveling to Buffalo for a uncharacteristic road game against a non-BCS conference program. Facing the Bulls on the road will provide head coach Art Briles an opportunity to see how his young players respond to a road game — even though it won’t be one of the toughest environments.
Conference home games include match-ups against TCU, Kansas, Oklahoma St. and Kansas St. Even with the defensive personnel being in transition, the Bears should win three of those games comfortably with the Oklahoma St. game being circled as a payback opportunity after the 49-17 blowout in Stillwater last season. They also host Texas Tech in a neutral site game in AT&T stadium in Arlington, TX.
They have to travel to Iowa St., Texas, West Virginia and Oklahoma. Charlie Strong will turn around the Longhorns program but it will take some time, so the only obstacle they face in repeating as Big 12 champs on the road will be Oklahoma — who will be looking to enact some revenge themselves after the 41-12 loss in Waco.
If the offensive line stays healthy and the new defensive starters are able to get up to speed by the time conference play begins, the Bears could be in the conversation for a spot in the college playoffs at season’s end — as their offense is potent enough to beat anyone in the nation.