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Holiday Bowl 2012: Rise of the Bears

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Coming to a Big 12 near you ...

Ronald Martinez

The departure of Baylor's Heisman-winning legend, Robert Griffin III, and his replacement with a mere mortal suggested that the Bears were due for a hiccup in their pursuit of national relevance in 2012. While there can no longer be much doubt that Art Briles' offensive system does tremendous favors for a Quarterback, RG3's NFL dominance tells us that RG3 was a legitimately phenomenal player.

Replacing him, as well as Kendall Wright, was an ominous proposition for the Baylor offense in 2012. The chances of the 2012 defense picking up the slack for RG3's departure were slim to none given their lack of premier talent on the defensive line.

However, the Baylor WR corp survived Wright's graduation and Nick Florence proved to be a more than capable replacement. The trick with Baylor's offense is that the wide WR splits and QB run game require that the QB be mobile and have a strong arm, the alignments and concepts take care of the rest.

As long as the QB can make the outside throws and be a threat in the running game the major schemes of the offense attack every part of the field. The WR screens and wide splits stretch the defense horizontally, the run game pounds the middle of the field, and the play action and deep passing game stretches the defense vertically. From there, the offense's success is dictated by the quality of the players.

With five games remaining in the regular season the Bears began to incorporate running back Lache Seastrunk into the offense. He ran for 693 yards on 86 carries (8.1 yards per carry) and the Bears won four of their last five games. As a result of his explosive output, he's generated a ton of excitement for the Bears next season.

For his own part, he proclaimed his own candidacy for the Heisman race for next season. Art Briles backed his player with the promise that Seastrunk would begin to see more action against UCLA in the Holiday Bowl. Against the talented UCLA squad, the Bowl game served to be a good test of Seastrunk's future as the centerpiece of the Baylor offensive attack.

It didn't take long before Seastrunk had reached 100 yards, despite UCLA's attempt to control the run game with six defenders in the box. Meanwhile, their understandable focus on the Baylor run game left them open to being ransacked by Nick Florence to the tune of over 10 yards per pass attempt.

Overall it was clear well before the Holiday Bowl was over that the Bear offense was going to continue to dominate the Big 12 landscape. The greater question was about whether the Baylor defense was drawing any closer towards becoming a unit that would no longer hold back the rise of Waco.

Towards the latter portion of the season the Baylor linebacker corp was slowly becoming a team strength due to the play of Bryce Hager and Eddie Lackey improving and matching the play of Nickel Ahmad Dixon. Against UCLA, the young defensive end duo of Terrance Lloyd and Chris McCallister was shockingly lethal against the Bruins offense and the Bears smothered a run game that had kept UCLA in contests against teams like Stanford over the course of the regular season.

Defensive Coordinator Phil Bennet developed an effective blitz package that wrecked havoc on the Wildcats in Baylor's upset victory over Kansas St. and is becoming a lethal weapon for a team that often plays from ahead against teams forced to throw the ball. They effectively combine a soft, bend'dont'break coverage philosophy with occasional big blitzes.

However they've struggled to find the athletes across the defensive line to get a consistent pass-rush or to do the work in the trenches to stop better running games. Towards that end, the 2012 recruiting class saw them land several quality DL prospects including Javonte McGee, a 260 pound DE prospect that might be converted into a defensive tackle and see playing time next year.

The most difficult tests for a rising young program come in maintaining consistent quality with different star players and finding linemen talent. Adjusting an offensive scheme to feature either a legendary Quarterback or an explosive tailback from year to year is a challenging task. Meanwhile the rarest players in the game are the athletic, fast, 280+ pound defensive lineman that anchor a defense or the 300+ pound offensive tackles that can be trusted to block in space against smaller, faster players.

Art Briles has long had a knack for developing the latter, if Baylor can finally field a defensive line that has depth and lacks glaring weaknesses to pair with their potent offensive attack than 2013 could be the most exciting season yet in Waco.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.