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Baylor shows advantages of weak non-conference slate

Baylor has been criticized for scheduling poorly in the past, but this non-conference slate is perfect to help the Baby Bears come along.

Saturday afternoon was a harsh dose of reality for Baylor fans. A week after demolishing Northwestern State, the Bears struggled to find their stride against SMU.

Seth Russell played one of the worst games of his career, averaging just 5.6 yards per passing attempt and missing receivers both short and long. The final rushing numbers ended up okay, but the Bears struggled to move the ball on the ground against a mediocre Mustangs front.

And really, the entire first half was just abysmal. The drive chart: punt, punt, field goal, punt, interception, fumble, field goal. For a team that prides itself on being the nation’s top offense, that’s understandably below expectations.  

Baylor has gotten blasted in the past for its weak scheduling, and I have readily been among the detractors. Team can’t expect to compete for national championships when it fails to beat teams in other Power Five conferences. However, this season is a perfect example of why the Bears scheduled the way they did.

The reality is these games have limited upside from a national perspective. Win easily, and the Bears are just doing what they are supposed to do. Struggle – like they did against SMU – and the narrative shifts. However, the schedule sets up perfectly this season as the Bears try to stay in the running for a Big 12 championship.

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Baylor was always going to struggle early after the offseason that was. In addition to losing its coach and the negative PR, Baylor also lost a whole bunch of recruiting depth off a team that already sent three All-Americans and five players overall to the NFL last spring. The offense returned only four starters, while the defense brought back five (and that’s before Travon Blanchard got hurt).

Some of the new starters, like defensive end K.J Smith and linebacker Aiavion Edwards, had plenty of experience as key depth pieces the past few seasons. But many have never played significant minutes in their Baylor careers. I would consider this especially true of six of the eight linemen – all but Smith and two-year starter Kyle Fuller.

Inconsistent line play was a big part of Baylor’s struggles on Saturday. The defensive line was not consistently able to get to SMU quarterback Ben Hicks and force mistakes, while the offensive line struggled to run block and give Russell enough time to get in rhythm.

Luckily, there is plenty of time left to figure this out. The Bears finish non-conference play with Rice before hosting a reeling Oklahoma State squad and playing Kansas and Iowa State with a smattering of bye weeks in between. Baylor doesn’t have a real test until it travels to play what could be a top-5 Texas team on Oct. 29 in Austin. That leaves plenty of time for units to meld together and for Russell to get on the same page with his receivers.

But if Baylor can get its inconsistent play together, the conference is wide open. Every team perceived ahead of Baylor heading into the year has already lost. Oklahoma fell to Houston in the opener, while the Horned Frogs lost to Arkansas at home. Oklahoma State dropped a tough one to Central Michigan. Even though that loss shouldn’t have counted, OSU shouldn’t have let the Chippewas stick around in the first place.

In fact, at this point, only three undefeated teams remain in the entire conference: Baylor, Texas and West Virginia. The Longhorns look legit running their new (very familiar) offense. West Virginia had an impressive win over Missouri early, but still hasn’t had to prove it against a top opponent.

The talent is on the roster, but depth has to continue to grow. Giving up 405 yards to SMU and failing to score a touchdown on the first seven drives won’t cut it when the level of competition increases. Safeties Orion Stewart and Davion Hall combining for three interceptions and a defensive touchdown is incredible to see, but probably not sustainable.

Baylor has to use these cupcake games to establish its system and find its identity on both sides of the ball. If it can, the talent level on this roster remains competitive with any in the conference. 

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Players to watch

Ira Lewis, DT – Lewis obliterated Northwestern State to the tune of three tackles for loss and a QB hurry, but failed to replicate the performance against SMU. With the defense shifting to a 3-4, Lewis needs to be the guy to cause havoc in the middle. If he can't, the defense doesn't work.

Blake Lynch, WR – Lynch was originally slated at an inside receiver, but I think he has to play outside. The Bears have tried their best to make KD Cannon an outside receiver, but it is quickly becoming clear that he doesn't have the physicals or body type to compete outside. Lynch has an impressive frame and showed off his physicality and body control with six catches for 95 yards and a TD against the Mustangs. Had he not committed a dumb fumble off his knee, he'd have a pair of scores.  

Zach Smith, QB – It was expected to be several years before Smith was presented with meaningful minutes, but he has quickly become the second-string quarterback after Jarrett Stidham's departure. He showed some nice touch against Northwestern State and needs to get more live-game reps against Rice, Kansas and Iowa State. 

Ish Wilson, OL – Wilson is a natural tackle, but has been forced to play guard full-time after Rami Hammad's suspension. The interior offensive line has struggled to get a significant push in the run block, so Wilson and guard partner Blake Blackmar will have to step up. 

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