Baylor football did not have the national championship season it hoped, but still had many bright spots in an injury-plagued 2015 season. Here are a couple of the best of them.
Best offensive player: WR Corey Coleman
The redshirt junior broke a couple of Baylor records during his breakout 2015 campaign. Coleman caught 72 passes for 1,363 yards and 20 touchdowns, the latter of which led the nation. He also moved past Kendall Wright for most touchdown catches in a career, despite playing only three years instead of four. He took a step back after suffering a sports hernia against Oklahoma, but was still easily the best Baylor offensive player this season.
Best defensive player: DT Andrew Billings
In 2014, Andrew Billings was an almost unstoppable force in the middle. He consistent ate up double-teams as a true sophomore and opened things up for Shawn Oakman to be an All-American. This time around, Billings was the star. He finished with 15 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in an All-American junior campaign of his own. His importance in one stat: Baylor gave up 3.69 yards per rush with Billings in the lineup. In the one game with him out, it gave up 5.4 yards per rush.
Best play: Johnny Jefferson’s breakaway
The Russell Athletic Bowl was Johnny Jefferson’s coming-out party. The redshirt sophomore finished with 199 yards and three touchdowns, both RAB records. Perhaps no play was more impressive than Jefferson breaking through the line and taking the ball 80 yards for a touchdown. If there has been a criticism of Baylor’s high-powered rush attack since Lache Seastrunk left, it’s the lack of breakaway threat. Jefferson proved on Dec. 29 that he is more than ready to take the torch.
Best coaching decision: WildBear vs. Texas
The first half of Baylor’s loss to Texas was one of the most miserable stretches in recent Baylor football memory. Lynx Hawthorne threw two interceptions as the Longhorns took a quick 17-0 lead over the Bears after the first quarter. At halftime, the Bears completely rebuilt their offense and moved into a run-only Wildcat set. Baylor averaged almost 8 yards per play after halftime and really just ran out of time, or it would have beaten the Longhorns. Is there another team that could rebuild an offense at halftime?
Most improved: Baylor cornerbacks
Baylor's base defense puts a great deal of stress on one-on-one cornerback matchups, which are exacerbated by the speed in the Big 12. In both losses last season (West Virginia and Michigan State), it's easy to point to how the secondary in particualar contributed to the losses. Ryan Reid in particular was the whipping boy for the defense after giving up several big plays. This season, the cornerbacks made a huge stride. Xavien Howard launched himself into an All-Big 12 defensive player after picking off five passes. Reid added a couple of picks of his own and generally did a better job keeping his man in front of him. Three of the four members of the secondary return (sans Howard), so the Bears should be able to build from this success.
Best Position Group: Offensive Line
This might have been the best incarnation of the Bears offensive line under Coach Art Briles. Another top-3 finish in rushing yards per game, and record setting offensive numbers across the board do not happen without the stars on the line. Led by unanimous All-American Spencer Drango, the Bears featured 5-seniors in their 2-deep. Against North Carolina, they rotated their second string into the game for every other drive and saw no drop-off whatsoever. This was a star-studded group, with tremendous depth, incredible experience powering an explosive scheme.
Best Game: Russell Athletic Bowl vs. North Carolina
What other game could it be? Blowing out a Top-10 team for the first bowl victory in 3-years, the Bears set a new NCAA bowl-game record for rushing yards in a game with 645. It was an assault on the few outliers that still believed that Baylor was a finesse "air-raid" team. A year after setting the bowl record for passing yards in a game, they now own the rushing yards record as well. An incredible feat, and one that every Baylor fan will look back at fondly. It was a great ending to a difficult season.