The Baylor Bears and Kansas Jayhawks will open Big 12 play Saturday in Lawrence. Both teams have shown improvement in 2021, with Baylor having already matched last season's win total in a 2-0 start, including a 66-7 victory over FCS Texas Southern last week, and Kansas surpassed its 2020 mark with a 17-14 victory over FCS South Dakota in the opener. The Jayhawks lost to Coastal Carolina 49-22 on the road last Friday, giving Lance Leipold's team an extra day to prepare to host the Bears.
Baylor at Kansas
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 18 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Baylor -18
When Baylor Has the Ball
The offense struggled mightily in head coach Dave Aranda's first season in Waco, but new offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes has already made an impact. Baylor averaged 23.3 points per game in 2020 and surpassed 32 points only once — a 47-14 win over Kansas in the season opener. The Bears averaged 5.68 yards per play in a 29-20 win over Texas State in Grimes' first game (1.24 yards more per snap than the unit produced last season) and then exploded for 714 yards and an average of 10.35 yards per play last week.
After rushing for 200 yards twice in nine games in 2020, Baylor has averaged 331.5 yards on the ground. Running backs Trestan Ebner and Abram Smith have both gained more than 100 rushing yards in each of the first two contests. Ebner has 345 rushing yards on 30 carries, an average of 8.17 per attempt, while Smith has 244 yards with a similar workload (31 carries). Smith has scored four touchdowns on the ground, and though Ebner hasn't run one in yet, he caught one touchdown pass among his four receptions for 70 yards. Taye McWilliams gained 102 yards and a touchdown on just six attempts against Texas Southern, and quarterback Gerry Bohanon scored twice last week and now has 36 rushing yards on nine carries.
Bohanon has also excelled as a passer. After beating out Jacob Zeno for the starting job, Bohanon has capitalized on his opportunity with 395 yards and three touchdowns without an interception while completing 68.1 percent of his passes. He has averaged 8.4 yards per pass attempt, a significant improvement for the Baylor passing attack that averaged 6.0 yards per attempt last season. Top target Tyquan Thornton leads the team with 10 receptions, 148 receiving yards, and two touchdowns.
When Kansas Has the Ball
Leipold's teams generally have a strong running game, but, with the exception of hulking Tyree Jackson when he was the head coach at Buffalo, haven't often featured the quarterback as a runner. North Texas transfer Jason Bean, who has completed 58 percent of his passes for 352 yards and two touchdowns without an interception, has been Kansas' most dangerous runner and leads the team with 28 carries, 154 yards, and two touchdowns. Bean has blazing speed, which he showcased on touchdown runs of 34 and 46 yards last week against Coastal Carolina. Nevertheless, it would be best for the Jayhawks to get more production from running backs Velton Gardner and Devin Neal. Gardner has just 52 rushing yards on 27 carries (1.93 yards per attempt). Neal, a highly rated freshman from Lawrence, has 41 yards on 11 carries and scored his first career touchdown last week.
Bean has spread the ball around in the passing game. Seven Jayhawks have caught passes, and six have three or more receptions. Kwamie Lassiter II leads with nine catches and 97 yards, followed by Buffalo transfer Trevor Wilson with six receptions and 89 yards. Lawrence Arnold caught both of Bean's touchdown passes in the win over South Dakota and has 70 yards on four receptions thus far.
Defense was expected to be a strength for Baylor, and the Bears are off to a good start after limiting Texas State and Texas Southern to an average of 13.5 points per game and 4.0 yards per play. Kansas played well defensively against South Dakota, limiting the Coyotes to 263 total yards and 4.17 yards per snap, but Coastal Carolina overpowered the Jayhawks for 460 yards (including 215 on the ground) and an average of 7.54 per play. Kansas has struggled against the run so far and ranks No. 99 in rushing defense (190.0 ypg) after finishing No. 118 last season (236.2). Given the one-two punch of Ebner and Smith running behind an improving offensive line, Baylor should have an advantage on the ground, and the Bears should open Big 12 play with a victory.
Prediction: Baylor 35, Kansas 20
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