Baylor Bears 2016 Preview and Prediction

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#25 Baylor Bears

NATIONAL FORECAST

#25

Big 12 PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Phil Bennett, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Kendal Briles | DEF. COORDINATOR: Phil Bennett

Baylor's 2016 outlook has shifted dramatically since late May. Coach Art Briles was dismissed after the results of an independent investigation into the program's response to sexual assault allegations was released on May 26. Briles was an instrumental part of Baylor's rise to a Big 12 power and one of the nation's top coaches. In addition to the coaching uncertainty, the Bears return only nine starters and face a significant rebuilding effort on both lines of scrimmages. The offense will be explosive once again, headlined by quarterback Seth Russell, receiver KD Cannon and a deep group of running backs. Reloading in the trenches on defense is Phil Bennett’s top offseason priority. 

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Previewing Baylor’s Offense
 

With two surgically repaired quarterbacks and a receiving corps thin on experience, Baylor’s perennially potent offense certainly has its issues. But the Bears’ biggest problem is up front, where four of the five starters have to be replaced. Other than senior center Kyle Fuller, who has 26 consecutive starts under his belt, the extent of Baylor’s returning experience is sophomore Blake Blackmar’s fill-in start in the regular-season finale against Texas. It’s not like the Bears are turning to wet-behind-the-ears recruits, though. Fuller is flanked by junior college transfer Dom Desouza and third-year sophomore Patrick Lawrence at the tackles and Blackmar and former Texas Longhorn Rami Hammad at the guards.

Quarterbacks Seth Russell (neck) and Jarrett Stidham (ankle) are coming off season-ending injuries. Offensive coordinator Kendal Briles says Russell was “playing elite as anybody in America” through the first seven games last season, when he passed for 2,104 yards and 29 touchdowns.

After All-America receiver Corey Coleman’s early exit to the NFL, junior KD Cannon is next in line. But there’s a definite gap in experience behind Cannon and fifth-year senior Lynx Hawthorne.

Easily the most loaded position is running back, with Shock Linwood and bowl game MVP Johnny Jefferson coming off 1,000-yard seasons. Sophomore Terence Williams is a short-yardage specialist, while redshirt freshman JaMycal Hasty is a breakaway threat.

Previewing Baylor’s Defense
 

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The situation up front is even more sobering on defense, where the Bears lose All-America nose tackle Andrew Billings and the other three starters. But if defensive coordinator Phil Bennett is worried, he’s not letting on. “I think we’ll be fine,” Bennett says. 

K.J. Smith is a former Freshman All-American who can play end or tackle. Senior Byron Bonds has made eight career starts at tackle, and junior college All-American DeQuinton Osborne should provide immediate help.

Baylor’s second line of defense is filled with much more experience, with Taylor Young at linebacker, Travon Blanchard at the Bear position and Ryan Reid, Orion Stewart and Chance Waz in the secondary. There’s even surprising depth at the cornerback position, though redshirt freshman Jameson Houston is the probable starter opposite Reid.

“I think we have talent, but we have work to do,” Bennett says. “I like these kids. We’ve just got to be hungry.”

Previewing Baylor’s Specialists
 

Punter Drew Galitz was solid enough as a freshman with a 40.7-yard average, 11 kicks inside the 20 and no touchbacks. And he might be the answer at kicker as well if Chris Callahan continues to struggle with consistency. Baylor’s return game was lackluster in 2015, surprising for a team with so much talent at the skill positions.

Final Analysis
 

Prior to Briles' dismissal, it was easy to pencil in Baylor as the No. 2 team in the Big 12 for 2016. However, that's not the case anymore. How will the Bears respond to interim coach Jim Grobe? There's no question the Bears still have a lot of firepower on offense, but how quickly can this team reload in the trenches and improve on defense? A top-10 ranking is certainly not out of the question, especially if Russell and Stidham come through as expected. But with the massive rebuilding jobs in both lines, making a run at a conference championship and a berth in the College Football Playoff seems unlikely. Without Briles leading the way, Baylor could slip to fourth in the Big 12 pecking order this season.