Thu Apr 23 07:33pm EDT
A random, too-soon look at Baylor's prospects next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
What's Changed. You could say "actual expectations," however modest, under Art Briles, whose first team showed a lot of fight last year: As usual, the Bears were 0-8 against winning teams, but thoroughly waxed the losers on the schedule -- including Texas A&M in mid-November -- by 30 points per game, and held late second half leads against UConn, Nebraska, Missouri and Texas Tech before dropping heartbreakers. They only won one more game, but the '08 Bears were dramatically better than the rock-bottom outfit that lost every Big 12 game by at least 20 points and cost Guy Morriss his job in 2007.
Of course, Morriss looked like he had the ship pointed toward the long-awaited bowl game, too, until November collapses in 2005 and 2006. What Morriss did not have, though, is the school's most dynamic playmaker in decades -- it's been so long since Baylor had anything resembling a legitimate "playmaker" on offense (literally decades: the last offensive skill player drafted from BU was sixth-rounder Melvin Bonner in 1993) that for a good chunk of last season, true freshman Robert Griffin didn't seem entirely, you know, right. What kind of kid with his immediately obvious size, agility and impressive offer sheet would wind up at Baylor of his own volition?
Griffin went for almost 3,000 total yards, coming dangerously close to joining the elusive 2,000-passing/1,000-rushing club, with a 15:3 touchdown:interception ratio and a solid 142 efficiency rating (an exceptional number for a true freshman). He humiliated Washington State with a school-record 217 yards rushing, went over 100 on the ground when he struggled to throw against Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas (not to mention 99 yards rushing in the near-upset at Texas Tech) and had five games with multiple touchdown passes. He was also the only quarterback in the country who did this, during his first semester on campus:
Griffin has very little room to improve, statistically, but he does clearly have a long way to go in the passing game that Briles ultimately prefers: The big rushing games mentioned above against OU, Nebraska, Texas and Texas Tech happened mainly because the Bears had nothing going through the air -- the first three were Griffin's three lowest-rated efforts as a passer, by far -- and had no choice but to shoot their only bullet over and over again. Even if Griffin's numbers plateau overall, the offense can take a great leap with more balance and consistency against the conference's tougher defenses.
What's the Same. Baylor has toiled for so long at the bottom of the Big 12 recruiting rankings, to call Griffin the Bears' "only bullet" is something of an overstatement. Yes, two-star tight end Jason Smith improbably evolved over four years into a formidable, top-five draft pick at left tackle, but he's the only one -- literally, Smith last year was the first Bear to make the All-Big 12 offense, first or second team, since receiver Reggie Newhouse in 2001, and since who knows when prior to that. Unless incoming linemen Ivory Watkins and/or Danny Wade , both four-star recruits, play right away, the offensive line will consist entirely of two-star athletes who, unlike Smith, have not broken the mold.
The skill players come with slightly better stamps of approval -- leading receiver Kendall Wright (another true freshman) and David Gettis, leading rusher Jay Finley and big play threat Ernest Smith (175 yards and 3 TDs on just seven catches) were all three-star recruits -- but are also products of Briles' quick-hitting, zig-zagging, catch-and-run spread, which caused Conference USA fits when he called plays at Houston. But this isn't Conference USA -- in the Big 12, the Bears are still wildly overmatched by all but the dregs and have to manufacture most of what they get.
Just give us something to work with, anything, please. The perpetually lame defense has fared a little better as far as the all-conference teams are concerned (linebacker Joe Pawelek and safety Jordan Lake made the cut in '08), but like every team in the Big 12, it was still the Achilles' heel: Big 12 offenses racked up 433 yards and 38 points per game, punctuated by a four-game losing streak in which the Bears allowed 457 yards to Oklahoma State, 497 to Nebraska, 490 to Missouri and 494 to Texas ... and the Nebraska and Missouri games were close!
In relative terms, the finale against Texas Tech -- when the Raiders gained just 365 yards and had to rally for a late, 35-28 win at home -- was a triumph, but like the offense, the defensive talent doesn't portend any looming turnaround. Of 10 returning starters, only two, defensive tackle Trey Bryant and cornerback Krys Buerck, earned a third star out of high school. Still, as close as the Bears were in a handful of games, a little improvement born of experience could be worth two or three more wins if the offense holds up its end of the deal.
Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. Griffin is a serious track star: Besides winning the Big 12's 400-meter hurdles as a freshman, he went on to finish fourth in the NCAA and just miss the final heat at the U.S. Olympic trials. He has realistic ambitions of shooting for the 2012 Olympics. So his decision to put hurdles on the backburner this week is evidence he's an even more serious quarterback:
Robert Griffin III will not defend his Big 12 400-meter title this spring.
The former Copperas Cove standout and Baylor sophomore quarterback chose to focus on football. Coach Art Briles and Griffin's dad, Robert Jr., confirmed the decision.
"Coach Briles wanted Robert to be there, to get everyone on the same page and so Robert can get stronger," Robert Jr. said. "They can taste a bowl game. Robert went to Baylor to play football and he wants to honor that commitment."
Part of that commitment is gaining weight: At 6'4", Griffin played at a relatively spindly 200 pounds last fall, five pounds above his ideal track weight. Briles wants his QB to bulk up even more this offseason, to 215, which makes running even more of a no-go for the time being.
Best-Case. The first two games against Wake Forest and UConn -- both perpetual losers made good, the kind of program Baylor is looking to emulate -- are crucial measuring sticks for the Bears' progress: Victories in both games seems unlikely, but a win in either opens the door to a 3-1 start and realistic bowl hopes. Even if BU gets that, though, and repeats its romps over Iowa State and Texas A&M within the conference, it will require another unlikely looking upset (over Missouri? Nebraska?) to come in at .500 and bowl-eligibility. Anything better than 6-6, with eight teams on the slate that won at least eight games in 2008, and Briles is the runaway coach of the year.
Worst-Case. Obviously, all of those eight teams still expect to beat lowly Baylor (again), and Iowa State and Texas A&M aren't likely to concede anything, either. Assuming BU is an underdog against all of the returning winners, a split against the Cyclones and Aggies could leave it sitting at 3-9, a very dejected step back from last year's near-breakthrough.
Non-Binding Forecast. As close as the Bears came to a string of moderately stunning upsets, any improvement by Griffin in the passing game is probably worth a shocker or two. Even for a team moving forward with some momentum, though, the wall is too tall: Even with an early triumph over Wake or UConn and a 3-1 non-conference run, I don't know where the third win in conference is going to come from. As long as they stay competitive, 5-7 will have to suffice as another baby step forward.