Baylor looks to bounce back from last week’s embarrassing 48-45 loss at home to Liberty (who has started the transition from FCS to FBS) to kick off the Matt Rhule era in Waco. Meanwhile, UTSA is playing its season opener after its game against Houston was cancelled due to Hurricane Harvey.
The Roadrunners are beginning the 2017 season after head coach Frank Wilson took the program to its first-ever bowl game, tying the NCAA modern startup program record by reaching a bowl game in their sixth season. Wilson went on to ink a new five-year deal in the offseason.
It’s the first time these two programs have ever met, and it’s the beginning of a three-game series that will continue at the Alamodome in 2018 and come back to Waco in '19.
UTSA at Baylor
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 9 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Fox Sports Southwest
Spread: Baylor -16.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The quarterbacks
Quarterback Anu Solomon was not the reason Baylor lost to Liberty. He completed 14-of-29 passes for 278 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception. With the weaknesses on defense and the youth at the running back position (two freshman listed in the two deep), Solomon will have to continue to carry much of the load for this Bears team. The quarterback has faced UTSA two times before in his previous stop at Arizona. He’s 2-0 against the Roadrunners during his career with 460 passing yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Meanwhile for UTSA, Dalton Sturm is back for his senior season after throwing 20 touchdowns to just six interceptions and adding four rushing touchdowns. He needs to improve on his consistency, but he has a lot of experience and depth back at wide receiver. Sturm should be licking his chops when he sees the numbers Liberty quarterback Stephen Calvert put up last week – 447 passing yards on 44-of-60 with three touchdowns.
2. Experience factor
Matt Rhule is working in several new faces on both sides of the ball. A total of 16 players appeared in a game for the first time against Liberty, including 11 true freshmen. As for this week, 11 freshman or sophomores are listed as starters for the game against the Roadrunners. Baylor finds its experience and leadership in the front seven of its defense, where All-Big 12 defensive end K.J. Smith and fourth-year starter Taylor Young at weak-side linebacker lead the way. But the secondary, which got torched by Liberty last week, is suspect, with the depth chart consisting of six freshmen or sophomores and two juniors.
Meanwhile, UTSA returns 13 starters from a team that went to its first bowl game in its seven-year history last season. Ten of 11 starters on offense are juniors or seniors, while eight on the defensive side of the ball are upperclassmen.
3. UTSA defensive line
This is the strength of this team, led by Marcus Davenport, who is the best pro prospect on the roster. Last season, he was a second-team All-Conference USA player, racking up 6.5 sacks. At 6-foot-7 and 255 pounds, he’s a monster who is going to give Baylor’s offensive line trouble. Rounding out the line is Kevin Strong, who started 10 games last season; three-time Super Bowl champion Nate Newton’s son King, who played in 12 games as a redshirt freshman last season; and fellow redshirt sophomore Baylen Baker, who played in all 13 games in 2016.
While we mention the defensive line, I’d be remiss not to bring up Josiah Tauaefa. The linebacker was the 2016 Conference USA Freshman of the Year who piled up a school-record 115 tackles, nine tackles for a loss, and six sacks.
The Bears are young, but they are still the far more talented team. Last week’s game was likely a wake-up call for Matt Rhule’s team and should serve as a learning experience for this group.
As much as Baylor’s defense struggled last week, the offense still had a field day. The Bears averaged 19.86 yards per pass completion in the opener, fifth-best in FBS, and averaged 7.47 yards per carry against Liberty, the 10th-best mark in the country. Freshman running back John Lovett piled up 89 rushing yards, and Chris Platt became Solomon’s go-to receiver on the outside.
As mentioned, the UTSA defense is solid in the front seven, and the secondary has a pair of rangy returning cornerbacks in Teddrick McGhee and Austin Jupe (both 6-0), but the firepower from the boys in Waco and the desperate need to bounce back after last week’s loss will be too much for the Roadrunners to handle on the road.
Prediction: Baylor 42, UTSA 24
— Written by Pete Mundo, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network as well as owner and operator of HeartlandCollegeSports.com, a site for Big 12 fans. Mundo also is a sports anchor at CBS Sports Radio and can found on Twitter @PeteMundo. Follow Heartland College Sports on Twitter @Heartland_CS.