by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

After nearly two decades of being outspent and usually outclassed as the only “church school” in the state-school-dominated Big XII, Baylor was finally able to take a definitive step upward in 2010, gaining its first bowl game in 16 years. Yes, BU was routed 38-14 by Illinois in the Texas Bowl. But inspirational, true-believing, Texas-legend coach Art Briles is hopeful the Bears can build upon that postseason appearance, especially since Briles’ speedy, dual threat at QB—jr. Robert Griffin III—is now in his fourth year as a starter, having earned a medical redshirt season after playing in only three games in 2009 before suffering a torn ACL.

College coaches will tell you that there are few luxuries they enjoy more than a talented, well-seasoned, starting QB. Last year—in his comeback season following his torn knee ligament—Griffin completed 67% of his passes for a Baylor-record 3501 YP (22 TDs, 8 ints.) in addition to running for 635 yards and 8 TDs. You don’t have to be Mr. Spock to figure out that it’s logical that the marvelous Mr. Griffin has a chance to better those numbers this season, and perhaps even join the Heisman race if Griffin can grab some headlines by engineering an upset or two. That’s where the $64,000 question regarding Baylor arises.

Last season, the 7-6 Bears were quite formful. They beat all the weak teams on their schedule—Sam Houston State, Buffalo, Rice, Kansas, Kansas State, Colorado, and the bumblingest, fumblingest University of Texas outfit since John Mackovic was “mooed” out of Austin in 1997. It was the first win for Baylor at UT since 1991. However, the Bears lost to every quality foe they faced last season—TCU, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, A&M, Oklahoma and Illinois, yielding a whopping 46 ppg. The Green and Gold defense ended 79th nationally vs. the run, 114th vs. the pass, 104th in total defense, and 89th in scoring (30.5 ppg). And that was with massive NFL first-round pick DT Phil Taylor jamming the middle of the DL and a veteran back seven patrolling behind him. Now Taylor is gone to the Cleveland Browns and only five starters return to a restructured Baylor defense.

Tasked with reviving the Bear stop unit to face the new, demanding, round-robin schedule of the ten-team Big XII is defensive expert Phil Bennett—the one-time head coach at SMU (2002-07) and former defensive coordinator at seven other stops. The first thing Bennett did in spring was to switch to a 4-2-5 base. Then he searched the roster for LBs he could convert to DEs; safeties he could convert to LBs. Says Bennett of preparing his platoon to face the pass-happy and/or spread-option teams of the Big XII, “I don’t get caught up with size. If you can run and you can hit and you can react, I’ll find a place for you.”

Baylor for years has been out-manned in terms of size and depth in comparison with its “state school” brethren in the Big XII. But Briles, thanks to his many connections from his days at the University of Houston and before that in the Texas high school ranks, has gradually boosted the recruiting level in Waco. Not to Longhorn, Sooner, or Aggie levels, but at least closer to Missouri, and closer to fellow Texas “church school” TCU of the Mountain West Conference. There might not yet be enough defenders in Waco to challenge for the Big XII title. But, as last year’s win at Texas shows, there might now be enough on hand to play the role of spoiler, especially with Oklahoma and Texas both visiting Waco, in Baylor games 10 and 12 this season.

Briles has high hopes for sr. NT Nicolas Jean-Baptiste, who was up to 315 in spring. 6-8, 350 true frosh manchild LaQuan McGowan, also a promising shot putter, oozes future DL potential. Soph DE Tevin Elliott had five sacks LY as a frosh. Juco DBs David Whitmore, Josh Wilson, and late signee Joe Williams give coordinator Burnett some numbers to work with alongside holdover seasoned DBs soph Sam Hall and jr. Mike Hicks.

On the Griffin-led offense, the questions are fewer, centering upon the RB position, where jr. 5-9 Jarred Salubi (215 YR, 8.3 ypc LY) and sr. power guy Terrance Galloway (295 & 6.4) will try to replace the departed Jay Finley (1218 YR, 6.2 ypc). Four of five starters return in the seasoned OL, with promising 6-5, 315 soph Cyril Richardson stepping in at LT and expected to eventually develop into an NFL prospect.

A seasoned receiver group returns, with five back who had at least 40 receptions last year. Griffin showed improvement LY in connecting with them on beaucoups big gainers...but not necessarily when needed most. TCU blew out the Bears 45-10 (who trailed 35-3 at the half). Baylor led A&M 30-14 in Waco; lost 42-30. The Bears trailed 34-0 last season at Oklahoma State before even denting the dish in a 55-28 final. BU trailed 24-0 early in the third quarter in its bowl game vs. Illinois, a 24-point winner.

Summary...QB Griffin should improve further in his playmaking this season, especially against quality foes. But he will have to, as Baylor’s new defensive scheme and new starters will take some time to mature. The Bears have gone 4-8, 4-8 and 7-6 in Briles’ three seasons. Defensive development and Griffin’s ability to learn to rally his team from behind in tough situations will determine whether the Green and Gold can elevate to a higher level. Note that in four bowl games with Houston and Baylor, the teams of the offensive-minded Briles are 0-4 straight up (1-3 vs. the spread), yielding a sieve-like 44.5 ppg.

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