5-Things: Thoughts at the Midway Point

The Baylor Bears are 6-0 and entering their last bye week of the season. Where do the Bears stand at the midway point of the season, and what is left?

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1. The Baylor Bears are 6-0 and off to a perfect start on their way to bowl eligibility for the 7th straight year. It is an accomplishment that should be celebrated, especially for Baylor fans that know the pain of a long bowl drought.  They are ranked 8th in the Coaches Poll, and 9th in the AP Poll, mainly on the back of their perfect record.  

That record though is full of question marks. The Bears opponents record is an awful 8-26. That is by far the weakest schedule of ANY Top-10 team, with Washington's 14-23 the closest. According to Football Study Hall's S&P+, the Bears are ranked 16th. 

Date Opponent Opp. S&P+ Rk Score W-L Win
Adj. Scoring
2-Sep Northwestern State N/A 55-7 W 100% 57.7 74%
10-Sep SMU 104 40-13 W 97% 14.6 70%
16-Sep at Rice 122 38-10 W 100% 31.6 79%
24-Sep Oklahoma State 30 35-24 W 97% 15.1 89%
1-Oct at Iowa State 93 45-42 W 75% 5.3 43%
15-Oct Kansas 112 49-7 W 100% 36.6 76%

As you can see from the cart above, the Bears have defeated an unranked FCS school, and four teams ranging from 93 to 122.  The only win of consequence has been Oklahoma State, who is ranked 30th.  The Cowboys are 4-2 on the season, with one of those losses being the Central Michigan hail mary that should not have counted.  That is it. The Bears are 1-0 with 5 scrimmages against some of the worst teams in FBS.  There are only 128 teams in FBS, so the Bears have played three in the bottom-25 poll pretty much and one FCS school that is 1-5 with its only win against Incarnate Word. 

2. Most importantly though, the Bears have won each game.  Five of the wins have been convincing, with only the Iowa State comeback victory throwing things out of balance.  They have taken care of business in their other games, winning every other game by at least 2 scores. The results don't matter, at least not yet.  The first football playoff poll is still several weeks away, and the Bears will not be challenging for a top spot, at least not yet.  There is still time, and luckily, the Bears will have plenty of opportunities to prove themselves.    

Date Opponent Opp. S&P+ Rk Win
29-Oct at Texas 37 64% W 6.4 35.2 - 28.8
5-Nov TCU 27 69% W 8.4 35.4 - 27.0
12-Nov at Oklahoma 12 42% L -3.6 30.7 - 34.3
19-Nov Kansas State 62 85% W 17.8 36.6 - 18.8
25-Nov vs. Texas Tech 51 75% W 11.7 40.1 - 28.4
3-Dec at West Virginia 24 54% W 1.8 31.1 - 29.4

S&P+ projects the Bears to go 11-1 on the season, with their lone loss coming to Oklahoma in Norman.  They will play 4 teams inside the Top-50, and one just outside at 51.  Their weakest game is against a solid team in Kansas State.  This schedule is not impossible, as the Big 12 is in a down year this year, but it won't be easy. The Bears have put themselves in position to be in the conversation, IF they run the table. 

3. Make no mistake, a single loss will destroy the Bears chances at the playoffs.  With their lack of schedule difficulty and the turmoil surrounding the program the past 6-months, I can only imagine that the playoff committee and college football as a whole would want no part in the Bears advancing to the playoffs. This is not a conspiracy theory.  This is just simple logic. There are more than a few red flags about the Bears as a program right now, right or wrong.  Given the opportunity, I have no doubt that the committee would choose a remotely comparable candidate over Baylor.  And I cannot blame them for that. 

With the Big 12 up in the air right now with no consensus favorite, there appears to be three teams that have separated from the pack; Baylor, Oklahoma and West Virginia. All are still undefeated in Big 12 play, with WVU joining the Bears in terms of the unbeaten.  The Mountaineers are 2-0 in conference, having one less game than both the Bears and Sooners.  You can make a case that the Mountaineers have the best resume thus far from any Big 12 team.  Their best win is over 33rd BYU, but all four of their FBS victories have been solid.  Missouri (49), Kansas State (62) and Texas Tech (51) join BYU and Youngstown State.  Their average victory is 48.75th in S&P+.  Compare that to Baylor (92.2)  and Oklahoma (61) and the Mountaineers have a big edge.  

West Virginia also has a big edge in that both the Bears and Sooners will have to go to Morgantown.  With trips to Oklahoma State, Texas and Iowa State, the Mountaineers host the three toughest games left on their schedule with TCU (27th) being the third. Will that edge be enough to give West Virginia a breakout season?  

4. Strangely, the Bears reasons for success have changed a little in 2016.  The Baylor defense is actually higher rated than the offence according to S&P ( Offense - 22nd, Defense 14th).  The Bears offensive attack is not at the level we have seen the past few years.  It is not the elite machine that has been the best offense in football.  It is very good though, and teetering on the edge of taking that next step.  

The Bears passing attack has been off for most of the season, with senior quarterback Seth Russell not connecting with his receivers enough.  That issue has been most prevalent down field on deep throws. Russell is only completing 57.1% of his passes this year, That is down over 2% form last year. 

There is an even larger drop off when it comes to QB Rating.  Last year, Russell was playing at an elite level with a QBR of 189.7.This year, it is down to 152.1.  His QBR last year was over 10 points higher than Vernon Adams, JR. who led the nation.  This year, Russell ranks 21st in the nation.  He has just 16 touchdowns, compared to 29 last year on just 23 more attempts.  Even with only playing 7 games last year, Russell finished 15th in the nation in passing touchdowns.  This year he is 12th with one fewer game than some competitors.  

His average is down from 10.5 to 8.3, a staggering fall.  The 2015 average would have led the nation (besting Vernon Adams' 10.2), but this year he ranks tied for 31st.  This passing attack has not been as explosive as it has been in the past, probably due to the changeover from last year's receiving unit and the lack of a consistent group so far in 2016.  Ishmael Zamora was suspended the first three game. Pooh Stricklin has missed time, and KD Cannon missed most of the fall camp due to injury, and then was hurt against Oklahoma State.  The Kansas game was the first time we saw the full group healthy, available, and playing all at the same time.

5. Defensively, you can say that the Bears are putting their best effort under coordinator Phil Bennett right now.  Yes, there was the Iowa State debacle through three quarters, before the defense stepped up and completely shut down Iowa State in the fourth quarter. With another shutout in the final 15-minutes against Kansas, the Bears are the only team in the nation to not allow a single point in the 4th quarter.  

The Bears have been incredible in obvious passing downs, ranking 2nd in the nation in IsoPPP.  They are getting a sack on 13% of passing downs, the 11th best rate in the nation.  The Baylor defensive backs have also been incredible at creating havoc, having the highest havoc rate in the nation at 11.9%, almost double that of the national average.  Havoc rate is calculated by impact plays (such as passes broken up, interceptions, tackles for loss, sacks, etc.) and diving that by the total amount of plays.  

Baylor's defensive backs, led by Orion Stewart, have been excellent this year at the big play. Baylor has also seen quite a bit of change in the defensive backfield, with Orion Stewart being the lynch-pin.  Against Kansas, Ryan Reid started with true freshman Grayland Arnold earning his first career start.  Jameson Houston, Verkedric Vaughns and Tion Wright have also played substantial minutes and starters games.  Alongside Stewart, we have seen Davion Hall and Chance Waz get starts. 

The Bears defense has done its job, especially in a difficult environment that other programs are facing with this type of up-tempo offense.  With the Bears defensive backs winning their one-on-one matchups, the Baylor defense has a chance to continue its strong performance while the deep passing attack by the offensive gets figured out for the stretch run. 

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