Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Baylor Spring Football Preview


2006 was a wasted opportunity for Baylor, no question about it. At the beginning of the season, Baylor fans (all 12,000 of them remaining) had to look at the schedule and think, “This is our year.” A strong returning QB in Shawn Bell, two strong RB’s in Paul Mosley and Brandon Whitaker, a deep WR corps, an experienced defense, and a schedule that included home games against TCU, Northwestern State, Army, Kansas State, Kansas, and Texas A&M, who they’d played extremely well the last two seasons. Win five of those and pick off a road win against Washington State or Colorado or Oklahoma State, and that’s six wins. Well, they lost to TCU and Wazzu, but they still had a chance as long as they beat Army. They lost in OT, 27-20. They swept the Big XII North, beating KSU and KU at home and nicking Colorado in Boulder...but it was too late. They lost their last four games of the season and finished a very normal 4-8. Now Shawn Bell’s gone, along with top RB Mosley and top WR Dominique Ziegler. Is the window of opportunity closed?

Key Returnees

Baylor enters its second season with a spread offense, and the overall level of comfort there will improve. The Bears averaged 23.6 PPG last season, their best in 10 years (ouch). They return three starting O-linemen (OT Jason Smith, OG Chad Smith, OG Dan Gay), and their success is key to sophomore QB Blake Szymanski. When Shawn Bell got hurt last season, Szymanski stepped in and looked like, well, a young QB with potential. He completed 53% of his passes with a 4-7 TD-INT ratio and entered the spring with a good shot at the #1 QB slot. Brandon Whitaker has been Paul Mosley's backup for a long time, but honestly he might be a better fit in the spread. With more carries, he could do some damage.

The defense returns seven starters, including five of their front six (they run a 4-2-5). Sophomore MLB Joe Pawelek (a freshman All-American in ’06) is a potential All Big-XII performer, and senior WLB Nick Moore has improved steadily throughout his time in Waco. They join three returning starters on the D-line, and hopefully for Baylor that means a significant improvement on the 4.97 yards per carry they allowed last season (5.90 in Big XII play). They return only two starters in the secondary, which will hurt considering the experienced secondary allowed a 58% completion rate and 7.2 yards per pass, but none of that probably matters if they can’t stop the run.

The biggest loss for Baylor possibly came in the special teams department, where punter Daniel Sepulveda finally finished up his 19 years of eligibility in 2006. Not only do they lose their All-American punter, but they also must replace a solid place-kicker in Ryan Havens. Think about how much worse Baylor could have been without Sepulveda’s 46.5 yards per punt and Havens’ automatic kicking. Yikes.

Oh, and Baylor’s breaking in five new assistant coaches as well. Ouch.

Spring Developments

The two major spring practice developments so far have been 1) two names separating themselves from the pack in the annual Baylor QB race (neither are named Szymanski), and 2) injuries and absences at WR. Senior Michael Machen and junior Ryan Roberts are the leaders in the QB race. Machen played at Kent State through 2006 (he had a 102.7 QB rating in 2005 before KSU switched to a run-oriented offense) and is at Baylor because of the “if you graduate in four years, you can transfer for your fifth year without sitting out” rule. Roberts previously played at DII before walking on at Baylor. I want to suggest that it says something about your program that QB’s from Midwestern State and Kent State can come in and quickly become the best QB’s you have...but I won’t. Who knows...maybe one of them will turn out to be fantastic.

As for the WR’s, lone returning starter Thomas White has been fighting off illness, sophomore Ernest Smith got knocked on the head, and sophomore David Gettis has been running track. There are plenty of potential weapons at WR, and you know they’ll find somebody to catch the ball in the spread offense, but...well, experience still counts for something.

Fun With Numbers

As I warned you Saturday, I jumped into last season’s box scores and looked into which statistical categories were most directly correlated with success (or failure) last year, and here were the top five for Baylor:

1. Opponents’ turnovers
2. Opponents’ completion %
3. Opponents’ 3rd down conversion attempts (?)
4. Opponents’ 3rd down conversion %
5. Third Down Conversion Ratio
This is an interesting set of numbers. First of all, it suggests that Baylor’s offensive performance had little to do with their success. Their chances for victory started and ended with defense. They gave up a 3rd down conversion rate of 42%, good for 10th in the conference, and forced only 25 turnovers, 7th in the conference. If these were the most important statistical categories for Baylor, and they finished 10th and 7th in the conference in those categories, then a 4-8 record sounds about right, eh?

So the key to success in 2007 is improvement in these categories...will they actually improve here? Well, an inexperienced secondary and an average pass rush (the projected DL starters combined for all of 5.5 sacks last year) suggests that they’ll be hard pressed to match last years 25 takeaways and even harder-pressed (harder-pressed?) to stop less than 42% of 3rd downs from being converted.

In other words, things aren’t looking too good for Baylor. Have I mentioned that the schedule gets tougher? Like, much tougher? Now they have to play at TCU, ATM, KU, and KSU, and while their non-conference slate is easier (they play at Buffalo instead of at Wazzu), it does include a game against Rice, who is coming off its first bowl bid in about 150 years. If Baylor is going to reach six wins in ’07, it’s going to come against Rice, Texas State, @ Buffalo, Colorado, Oklahoma State, and...uhh...@ Kansas? Unless Michael Machen can step in and drag the Baylor offense to about 450 yards per game (which isn't impossible, I guess...just unlikely), the stagnant defense and rough schedule will lead to yet another losing season in Waco.