1.The Baylor Bears begin their quest for a third Big 12 championship this Thursday, as Fall camp kicks off. Baylor is a Top-5 team in the nation, but a seemingly solid bet for a second place finish in the Big 12, at least according to most of the experts. With 18 returning starters on offense and defense, the Bears are going to look very familiar from fans of the 2014 season. Stars such as Corey Coleman, Andrew Billings, Spencer Drango, Shawn Oakman and KD Cannon are back. Baylor will have one of the most experienced teams in the nation coming into 2015, except at possibly the most crucial position: Quarterback.
2.Bryce Petty is gone to the NFL, where he started his professional career with the New York Jets last week. Had a pretty good few days of practice too, hitting some deep passes for touchdowns. His career in the green and gold is over. In his place will be Seth Russell, at least as of the first day of camp. Russell started 1 game last year and played in several others, and is the most experienced option the Bears have at quarterback. He is the favorite to be the new "guy" for Art Briles and company.
Russell will bring a new, yet old element to the Baylor offense. He is a true dual-threat athlete, a guy that can do significant damage with his legs. The Baylor offense the past 2 years has not really involved the quarterback run, with Petty taking on the role of a pure pocket passer, a role that fit his strengths much better than the offense with Robert Griffin and even Nick Florence from years before. The rushing attempts from the Baylor quarterback position has decreased over 35% since the heyday of Griffin. In 2011, the Bears had 190 rushing attempts. In 2012, Nick Florence and company had 149. The last two years have seen just 118 and 120 attempts from the QB position. Those stats include sacks (as the silly NCAA statisticians judge a sack as a rushing attempt...sigh). With Russell under center, you can expect that number to go back up closer to the RG3 era.
3.The Bears aren't stuck just looking to replace one Bryce, as the quarterback of the defense, middle linebacker Bryce Hager, also graduated. Hager was the key to the Baylor defense, and a huge part of their success the past 3 years. With him on the field the last two years, they were a very good defense. When he was hurt in 2013, they struggled to replace him. The battle to fill his position will be one of the more interesting camp battles to watch. Junior College transfer Grant Campbell is looking to finish his career at Baylor as the starter, while Aiavion Edwards is trying to get a starting spot back after losing his weakside spot to Taylor Young. With Travon Blanchard the leader right now for the vacated nickle back spot, it should be a tough battle between Edwards and Campbell for the top spot, though both will probably earn quite a bit of playing time. If I had to bet, I would say Campbell will earn the top spot, as Edwards is more able to backup both linebacker positions.
4.One area the Bears won't have to worry about is on both lines. Baylor returns every starter on the offensive and defensive line, and even some guys that will be pushed down to the second string with great starting experience. You can make a good case that the foundation of the Bears offense is as talented and experienced as any in the nation, and the defensive line might be in even better shape on both fronts. Andrew Billings and Shawn Oakman are both possible All-Americans, with Oakman being selected by the media as the Big 12 preseason defender of the year. Add in multi-year starters like Jamal Palmer and Beau Blackshear, and you have the best defensive line in the Big 12, and maybe America.
With all nine starters returning along both lines, and the talent on display, the Bears offensive and defensive foundations are in great shape. It is a good thing, as both of those units will be key parts of a possible third straight Big 12 championship run for Baylor and Head Coach Art Briles.
5.On paper, this might be the most talented and experienced team in Baylor history. A preseason ranking of 4th in the nation, the highest in Baylor history, is good proof of that. With a schedule that has Texas and Oklahoma at home, the Bears would seem destined to be the top team in the Big 12. However, TCU is the choice by a wide margin, at least according to the media. With a dominant bowl win over an SEC power, and a returning quarterback, the Frogs are ranked 2nd in the nation and easily outpaced the Bears in 1st place votes for the Big 12 title. With the Bears visiting the Frogs in Fort Worth this year, the benefit of the doubt has gone to the Frogs. Right or wrong, the bowl game bump and the returning quarterback margin are big for TCU. They return quite a bit of talent on both their offensive and defensive lines as well, though their defense will have to replace their entire linebacker group and several key defensive backs.
Even if you throw the bowl game difference out the window, the Frogs seems to be getting more credit for Coach Gary Patterson always being able to field a great defense, though that defense has not been up to that great level for a few years, while Baylor and Coach Art Briles will struggle to find a quarterback. The worst quarterback in Briles' head coach history is probably Nick Florence...the leader in single season passing yards in Baylor history. Yeah...consider me not too worried about Russell and the Baylor offense.
I just know that I have picked the Bears second the past two years, mainly because I saw them at the same level of one other team in the Big 12 (Oklahoma State in 2013 and Oklahoma in 2014). This is the third year they have an "equal" and all three years have seen the Bears go on the road to face their main competition. My thought process has been, and will be to give the benefit of the doubt to the home team and pick them. My other thought process is to not change something that isn't broke, as picking the Bears to finish 2nd in the Big 12 the last two years has worked out quite well for Baylor.
Still, does anyone else find it funny that another Big 12 team is coming off of a dominant win over an SEC power in their bowl game, and being picked to win the conference (look at you Sooners!!)? You can make an easy case against TCU to not win the conference, such as them now being the hunted, do they improve their rather sketchy performance on the road from 2014, how do they replace the core of their defense in the linebacker unit, and how does the offense work when everyone knows what is coming now? There are a lot of questions to answer, and I for one am just glad we are getting closer to finally being able to answer a few of them.