Baylor (0-3, 0-1) at Kansas State (2-1)
Site: Bill Snyder Family Stadium
Time/Day: 2:30 p.m., Saturday
TV/Radio: ESPN2/ESPN Central Texas
Betting Line: Kansas State -14 1/2
Series: Kansas State leads, 8-6
Other than the losses, there's really no clear way to define how the 2017 season has unfolded for Baylor.
One week it looks like the offense has started to look like it has something going. But then the defense struggles. The following week, it's the opposite.
But that's usually the recipe for a team that has yet to win a game. All the parts haven't meshed.
However, the feeling coming out of the 49-41 loss to No. 3 Oklahoma offered a bit of unbridled hope that perhaps the Bears are finally grasping what is being taught and demanded. Well, they're going to find a lot more about how far they have come or how far they have to go when they face Kansas State in the Wildcats' Big 12 opener.
Baylor is in a stretch of playing three of four away from McLane Stadium. The 0-4 record would provide little to move the needle. But in this rebuild, it's a matter of growth every day.
Head coach Matt Rhule said he believed the buy in is getting there. The evidence will be about competitiveness, the ability to finish and depth. Consider that Baylor has been in all four of its games in the fourth quarter. It's lost three by one score. The 34-20 loss at Duke was a product of two huge turnovers that led to 10 points.
So Rhule knows his team can and will compete. It's the other two that need will take longer. There is no set time frame for when that will happen.
"There are some things we got better at, and there are some things we got a lot worse at,'' Rhule said. "I can tell you this, the coaches on defense and the players on defense are not walking out feeling like they went toe to toe on the field. "
Emotion is fickle factor. The Bears feel good. The Wildcats feel a bit uneasy. A flat performance in a 14-7 loss at Vanderbilt two weeks ago sucked some of the energy out of a team that believed it has a chance to win the Big 12 title. Of course, that hasn't changed because this team hasn't played a league game yet.
Baylor wants to build on the memory of Oklahoma. Kansas State has worked on erasing its frustrations.
Here are some key elements to look for
>Baylor's passing game will look far different with Chris Platt done for the season with a knee injury. It appears sophomore Pooh Stricklin will take his spot. Stricklin's name has been under the radar for the most part. He has had some drops. But he's also averaging 14.7 yards per reception. He's not Platt. But he can work well together with Denzel Mims and Tony Nicholson.
>Baylor's defensive line is in a pinch. It's probably the deepest part of the unit. However, it's getting thinner between the losses of Xavier Jones and K.J. Smith. Jones is out for the season. It's really unknown if and when Smith will return. By the fourth quarter against Oklahoma, this group was worn out. Kansas State is going to try to assert itself with a punch from the opening snap.
>Quarterback Zach Smith kept his team in the game and led a pretty strong rally in the fourth quarter last week against the Sooners. If Baylor's offensive line can keep a relatively clean pocket for the second consecutive game, then success will follow.
>There's no denying that Baylor's safety play is just not very good. There are times when they play the ball and don't play the receiver and give up a big play. There are times when they play the receiver and don't play the ball and give up a big play. Rhule and defensive backs coach Fran Brown have run so many out there. Henry Black and Davion Hall are probably the best bets out there. But let's be honest, it doesn't offer a feeling of confidence.
>Baylor leads the Big 12 in tackles for loss (32.0) and sacks (11.0).
Keys to the game
>Make him pick -Kansas State quarterback Jesse Ertz is the classic dual threat quarterback. But he's not a pocket passer. If you're the Bears, you're hoping your defensive front can create enough discomfort for Ertz. You want to keep him in the pocket and make him beat you with his arm, not his legs. His legs allow him to be a better passer. He's KSU's leading rusher with 237 yards.
>The big play - Kansas State receivers don't catch it very much. But their top three receivers Byron Pringle, Isaiah Harris and Dalton Schoen have combined for only 16 receptions. But they make them count as they are each averaging in excess of 24.3 yards per reception. There have been TD receptions of 55, 69 and 70 yards. Baylor's secondary is on red alert.
>Discipline - The Bears only had 29 yards in penalties and turned it over their last offensive play. That's what Rhule described as winning footall. Do something similar to that and the Bears will keep themselves in it.
>Run it - Baylor's inability to run the football has been a real problem this season. The Bears averaging 4.0 yards per carry and have totaled 508 so far. However, 162 has been sideline between JaMycal Hasty and Anu Solomon. With Terence Williams appearing to be OK following last week against Oklahoma, this could be the game where gets more carries.
I went back and forth on this all week. Kansas State probably should win this game. It's a stronger team, a more physical team and a veteran team. Baylor is playing on the road. Young teams playing under a first-year coach changing everything usually have difficult afternoons.
However, the Kansas State-Vanderbilt game showed me something. Now, Vanderbilt isn't going to be confused as a major power. But Kansas State just didn't look like a team that was prepared to play.
I've thought throughout the summer that the Wildcats were over rated. That hasn't changed. As I mentioned above, if Baylor can limit Ertz to being more of a passer, the Bears can win this.
In fact, I think they will. I'm not drinking the kool-aid. Just playing a hunch.
Prediction: Baylor 33, Kansas State 30
The Baylor offense found some rhythm against Oklahoma last week, and even though this game is on the road, K-State has not played well this season and is struggling offensively.
I believe the Wildcats want to play a smash mouth, grind it out, ugly type of game. And this is similar to what we heard from Coach Rhule coming into the season. With a somewhat healthy group of running backs, I expect Baylor to establish the run and use that to open the passing attack with Zach Smith.
Prediction: Baylor 27, Kansas State 20