Submitted by Richie Baccellieri on Monday, September 26, 2016 at 9:00 AM
It would be easy to overlook Baylor as a potential threat on the national landscape and a moneymaker down the road. The Bears went through a tumultuous offseason that saw Art Briles fired and former Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe brought in on an interim basis.
Even as Baylor started the season with three wins, it was against the usual class of weak teams (a non-board game with Northwestern State, followed by SMU and Rice) and the Bears failed to cover the number in two of those games. And even Saturday’s 35-24 win over Oklahoma State as a (-6.5) favorite has some of the luster taken off by the fact the Cowboys have already lost outright at home to Central Michigan.
But the way Baylor has been winning is different and is worth noting. The Bears are no longer blowing out the scoreboard lights, thus accounting for the early ATS losses. They scored 40 points in the SMU game and 38 against Rice, numbers that the high-octane Briles offenses used to hit by halftime. It’s the defense that looks different—in all three board games (including Oklahoma State), Baylor has played to the Under and in all cases by at least two touchdowns.
The play of the Bears’ defense was most notable in looking at the passing numbers from the Oklahoma State game. Baylor held Cowboy quarterback Mason Rudolph to a meager 6.2 yards-per-attempt. By contrast, their own Seth Russell generated a whopping 13.8 yards-per-attempt on 28 passes. The disparity in the numbers suggest Baylor can make up for with efficiency what they might no longer show with raw explosion.
Baylor is a 2-1 bet to win the Big 12. While that number doesn’t jump off the page, let’s keep in mind that this is a league where no one has distinguished themselves (and that’s being nice), and the Bears are still priced as equivalent to Oklahoma and Texas. TCU isn’t far behind at 4-1.
All of those teams have significant defensive problems. The Oklahoma defense has been completely exposed by Houston and Ohio State. While those are outstanding teams, there’s no reason to think Baylor can’t also move the ball on the Sooners. Texas’ dramatic Week 1 win over Notre Dame has lost almost all its luster and the fact the Longhorns gave up 50 points in a loss to Cal seems more relevant. TCU, in spite of the defensive reputation of head coach Gary Patterson, ranks 67th in the nation on D and has given up 41 points to South Dakota State.
There’s time to watch and evaluate Baylor’s chances in the Big 12 race. The Bears have a quiet four weeks, with Iowa State, Kansas and two byes. The stretch drive begins for real on October 29 at Texas, when the Big 12’s backloaded schedule kicks in. Handicappers need to use these next few weeks wisely to see if Grobe and the improved Baylor defense might grab a Big 12 title.