WACO, TX - NOVEMBER 19: Head coach Art Briles of the Baylor Bears during play against the Oklahoma Sooners at Floyd Casey Stadium on November 19, 2011 in Waco, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Replacing RGIII is the headline, but defense is the key for the 2012 edition of the Baylor Bears. Here's why they'll finish above .500.
The gaping hole under center left by Robert Griffin III is the headline-grabbing story of Baylor's 2012 season, but finding some semblance of a defense is just as important, and maybe more difficult. With a schedule that includes six teams in the preseason top 25, the defense will be key as Art Briles looks to establish Baylor as a consistent winner in the Big 12.
Griffin had a video-game season running Art Briles offense last year, embarrassing defenses like TCU and OU along the way. But while the offense finished 4th in the country in points per game, the defense nearly matched them by allowing a FBS 113th best 37.2 points. The Bears had RGIII to cover their defensive deficiencies last year, but they won't have quite the same luxury in 2012.
The defense struggled in a lot of areas last year, but none more so than against the pass. Part of this was a lack of pressure, and part was due to poor play in the secondary. The line and linebackers mustered 19 sacks all season last year. The super-elusive Robert Griffin III went down 29 times. With much of the same personnel coming back to man the positions this year, any hope for an impact pass rusher up front may rest with freshman Javonte Magee, a 4-star national prospect who has been making a push for playing time.
The returning linebackers don't instill a great deal of confidence either, but juco transfer Eddie Lackey claimed a starting outside linebacker spot from two uninspiring juniors. He'll team with Ahmad Dixon (89 tackles last year) on the other side and unproven sophomore Bryce Hager in the middle. As with much of the Baylor defense, uncertainty abounds, but there is room for hope.
The most glaring problem on defense last year was the defensive secondary. Two sophomores (Joe Williams and K.J. Morton) were thrown into the fire as sophomores and it showed. After a year of what was occasionally brutal on the job experience last year, all indications are they are a much improved duo. The safeties, however, also have to improve for the defensive secondary to take a meaningful step forward. Sam Holl is a borderline college linebacker-sized player who plays the run well but has an unfortunately tendency to let plays get behind him. If his play recognition matches his lust for the big hit it would do wonders for the Bears' defense.
As far as the offense, Nick Florence impressed during his lone appearance last year in relief of an injured griffin against Texas Tech. His cumulative stats are deceiving since they came when he was a true freshman slated to be the team's third string quarterback. That's emergency, get no reps in practice, third string freshman quarterback. From his appearance last year and all accounts from the coaching staff, he's a guy that will make proper reads and accurate passes. While that won't make him Robert Griffin, it doesn't rule him out from being Kellen Moore (maybe a stretch, but we'll see).
For help, Florence has W.T. White alum Terrance Williams and Tevin Reese on the outside. Both flirted with a thousand yards last season and bring back plenty of experience and familiarity with the system. But the more interesting position is running back. With Terrance Ganaway gone, they have a 1300 yard rusher to replace. Enter Lache Seastrunk, the Oregon transfer and former number 3 running back recruit from the 2010 class. He has yet to record a collegiate carry, but his 138 yards on 7 carries in the spring game and 4.35 40 yard dash should be enough to get the Baylor faithful excited.
All in all the year presents an interesting challenge for the Baylor program. They're not yet a football entity that reloads and replaces like an OU or UT, but they're building, with increasingly strong recruiting classes over the past several years. Whether they have stockpiled enough talent to lean on in a post-Heisman season is the question and the challenge. Making matters even more difficult is having 6 top 25 teams on the schedule -- 3 on the road and 3 at home. Florence will have a good year and the defense will improve, but 7-5 is the ceiling. The offense will be solid and they will upset a Kansas State team featuring a glorified walk-on level quarterback and beat Tech at home the following week to ensure another winning season.
For more coverage of Baylor athletics, check out Our Daily Bears, SB Nation's excellent team blog faithfully manned and updated by our friends in Waco.