2011 Missouri Football Preview: Baylor

2011 Missouri Football Preview
Analysis: Dave Matter | Michael Atchison
Opponents: Miami (Ohio) | Arizona State | Western Illinois | Oklahoma | Kansas State | Iowa State | Oklahoma State | Texas A&M
Unit Walkthroughs: Quarterback (Bonus) | Running Backs | Wide Receivers (Bonus) | Tight Ends | Offensive Line | Defensive Ends (Bonus) | Defensive Tackles

In college football, a sport in which teams count on about 24 players, minimum, to win games, there probably is no such thing as a true, program-changing athlete. No matter how good a single player is, he's only going to succeed to a finite level without a lot of help. When you look at some of the more impressive turnarounds in recent college football history, there may have been a standout player, but he got a lot of help. Chase Daniel had Jeremy Maclin, Chase Coffman and Martin Rucker. Andrew Luck first had Toby Gerhart, then had Stepfan Taylor, Owen Marecic and a killer offensive line. Pat White had Steve Slaton, Owen Schmitt, Quinton Andrews, and an opportunistic defense. In this sense, Robert Griffin III isn't a program-defining athlete, a one-man team. But he's just about as close as you can get.

Despite offers from Nebraska and Tennessee, among others, Griffin committed to the University of Houston in Fall 2007, opting to stay close to home and play for a coach with whom he had developed a connection. When Art Briles took the Baylor job, Griffin followed. Three years and a knee injury later, Baylor was bowling for the first time since Boyz II Men had the number one song in the country. Griffin is smart, loyal, likable, brutally tough, ridiculously fast, incredibly underrated as a passer, and in 2010, he led Baylor to any number of firsts: first bowl since 1994, first AP ranking since 1993, first win at Texas since 1991 (basically first anything good since the Grant Teaff era).

Unfortunately for the Bears, Griffin and an extremely capable Baylor offense were burned too many times by a defense that was both experienced and completely unreliable. The better the offense performed, the worse the defense performed; it was that way when Baylor was running out to a 7-2 start, and it was that way when they were losing their final four games of the season. The defense held Baylor back in 2010, and at first glance, there's no reason to think the same thing won't happen in 2011.

OFFENSE

It's hard to get past the stereotype. "Robert Griffin III is incredibly fast, therefore he's a running quarterback." False – he's a passing quarterback with wheels. He's Steve Young, not Brad Smith. Briles trusted Griffin enough to have him throw 35 passes a game last season, and it quite clearly paid off. Griffin completed 67 percent of his passes for 3,501 yards, 22 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. For his career, he has completed 64 percent of his passes at well over seven yards a pop, and he has a 41-to-11 TD-to-INT ratio. His 60 yards-per-game rushing average is just a bonus. Now for the even scarier news: thanks to a medical redshirt, he's somehow just a junior.

Not only do the Bears return Griffin for two more seasons, but they also return a majority of key players from last year's consistently stellar offense as well. Few teams were as balanced as Baylor. They were reasonably explosive and as efficient as anybody in the Big 12. Now, four of five linemen, four of six top passing targets, and two of three top running backs return to flank Griffin. Art Briles has built some lovely offensive depth to go alongside his star.

Though Baylor loses only three major contributors, however, all three were key members of the 2010 offense. Left tackle Danny Watkins was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles, running back Jay Finley was an underrated weapon out of the backfield, and surprise transfer Josh Gordon was the primary homerun threat. Still, everybody loses weapons in a given year; Baylor still returns enough to be scary. Tailbacks Jarred Salubi and Terrance Ganaway have potential, but they're not guaranteed to match Finley's production. Griffin targeted five players with a combined 80 percent of his passes last season, and all five return. And even better for Briles, they come in all different styles and sizes. Kendal Wright is the play-maker. Lanear Sampson is the possession receiver. Tevin Reese is the slot guy. Terrance Williams is the do-it-all type. There is both variety and speed, and with Griffin at the helm, it’s quite a challenge for Dave Steckel to gameplan against in November.

DEFENSE

Though Baylor's defense was absolutely the weak link for Baylor in 2010, and though they really weren't particularly good at any one specific facet of the game, they weren't quite as bad as their total yardage rankings suggest. Baylor was brutalized by some rather strong offenses, and though no one could fault them for surrendering the yards they did, it represented a missed opportunity. Had the defense been just average, Baylor could have threatened for ten wins.

Monstrous defensive tackle Phil Taylor was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the first round, but despite his own impressive-for-a-tackle stats (48.5 tackles, seven for loss), Taylor couldn't do the linebackers enough favors. Antonio Johnson, Elliot Coffey and Chris McAllister all had their moments, but the linebackers were largely culpable for Baylor susceptibility to the run. Johnson and middle linebacker Chris Francis are gone, but their production was exceedingly replaceable. Taylor's presence, on the other hand, could be missed.

Making matters worse for Baylor is the departure of four of the top six defensive backs. Safety Byron "Crash" Landor produced tackles with machine-like efficiency (102.5 for the season), Tim Atchison was a multi-year contributor at free safety, and cornerback Mikail Baker is gone as well. One of Baylor's relative strengths was the ability to avoid big plays in the passing game, though it came at the expense of underneath routes from giving epic cushions at the line of scrimmage. Much of the pressure in the defensive backfield shifts to Mike Hicks and the winner of the other starting safety spot (likely sophomore Sam Holl). If Taylor's absence is felt up front and Baylor is more susceptible to deep balls, an already-maligned defense could plummet. The unit’s most intriguing player is safety Ahmad Dixon. In terms of recruiting star power, Dixon was the defensive version of Griffin, a four-star athlete who passed on a Texas offer to play for Briles. Dixon blended into the scenery as a true freshman last year, registering 13.5 tackles and forcing a fumble in 11 games, but he was the first-string nickel back on the post-spring depth chart, and lord knows Big 12 defenses play with a nickel back often enough for that to be a position of key value.

SERIES SPOTLIGHT: NOVEMBER 1, 2008 (Missouri 31, Baylor 28)

Mizzou's fledgling national title hopes had fallen apart when they lost to Oklahoma State at home, and any "maybe we'll get lucky and sneak back into the title hunt" hopes disappeared when they got rolled by Texas the next week. But after stomping Colorado, 58-0, the Tigers headed to Waco for what was supposed to be an easy win. It was anything but easy.

Mizzou scored on their first two drives to go up, 14-0, in the first quarter. They were driving to take a three-touchdown lead, but Joe Pawelek picked off Chase Daniel in the Baylor end zone. Given second life, the Baylor offense began to put things together. An 80-yard touchdown drive made the score 14-7, then De'Vion Moore lost a fumble at the Baylor 35. A short Jimmy Jackson touchdown run gave the Tigers a 21-7 lead at halftime, but the two turnovers in Baylor territory had taken anywhere between six and 14 points off the board, points that began to seem quite valuable when Baylor ripped off back-to-back touchdown drives to start the third quarter. Chase Coffman made an incredible one-foot-down touchdown catch to give the Tigers a 28-21 lead as the fourth quarter began, but Baylor once again responded. Hot Tub Griffin III found Jay Griffin for a 36-yard catch-and-run, and with 9:54 remaining, it was 28-28. And then Jordan Lake picked Daniel off near midfield. Take it away Me From Three Years Ago:

4:46 - High pass, and Chase Coffman can't haul it in...he tips it to Jordan Lake for the interception.  Wow.  I don't know what to say, other than Sean Weatherspoon, or William Moore, or Carl Gettis, or Stryker Sulak, or Ziggy Hood...SOMEBODY needs to make a play, and right now.

4:47 - Third-and-4 for Baylor from the MU 46.  Four-down territory, I'm sure, but this is still obviously a big play.  SOMEBODY MAKE A FREAKING PLAY.

4:48 - Loss of two for Baylor.  Somebody made a play, but Mike Kelly doesn't know who.  Baylor will go for it on 4th-and-6.  For the first time all game, I'm not annoyed, but nervous.

4:49 - False start on Baylor.  4th-and-11.  Surely they'll punt it now.

4:49 - They do.  Fair catch by Maclin at the Mizzou 9.  Mizzou dodged a bullet, but it's still a tie game.  It was clear that Baylor needed turnovers to keep them in this game, and they've gotten them.  The 3-1 turnover differential is why the game is tied.

4:51 - 19-yard gain for Jared Perry, and he's "popped out of bounds."  DRINK!

4:52 - 16-yard run for Daniel, and they're to near midfield.  Under 6 minutes to play.

4:52 - Good god...Baylor's Tim Atchison dropped what would have been another pick.  Seriously, why the hell does Chase Daniel play like crap in the state of Texas??

4:53 - Third-and-5 for Mizzou from near midfield.  I'd say "huge play for Mizzou", but...duh.

4:53 - Quick out to Maclin for the first down.

4:54 - Good GOD this is driving me crazy...Jimmy Jackson dropped a pitch, but it bounced right back to him, and he gained 9 yards.  Playing with fire.

4:55 - Short gain for Jackson, and they'll measure...first down, Mizzou!  Four minutes left.

4:57 - Another first down, this one by Saunders to the 20.  3:18 left...

4:58 - Maclin with a 3-yard gain, and Baylor calls timeout with 2:40 left.  I've REALLY got to pee...

5:01 - Bladder empty, and Mizzou will have a 3rd-and-5 from the Baylor 15.  Baylor calls their second timeout.  2:38 left.  I'm assuming Mike Kelly was lying to me, and there wasn't actually 2:40 left after the last play.  Surely that play took more than 2 seconds.  But I'm babbling.

5:02 - ANOTHER near-pick, this time by Jordan Lake.  Good god.  Wolfert will have to kick a field goal.  Gag me.

5:03 - WOW.  Baylor decides to ice Wolfert by using their last timeout???  Dumb.  I don't think icing actually works.  I mean, Wolfert might miss this, but I'm doubting it will have had anything to do with icing the kicker.  Just think it's a waste of a timeout, but I can't complain that Baylor has no TO's left.

5:04 - Wolfert splits the uprights.  31-28, 2:31 left.  Mizzou kills 4 minutes, 3 Baylor timeouts, and 70 yards.

5:05 - GOD I HATE LISTENING ON THE RADIO.  Baylor fumbled on the kickoff, and Mike Kelly went nuts, so I assumed we recovered it.  We did not.  Baylor ball at their 21.

5:06 - Griffin sacked by God Coulter and Jaron Baston...3rd-and-9 from the Baylor 22.  Maybe not a sack, but whatever.  Short gain.  I can't breathe.

5:07 - BROCK CHRISTOPHER WITH THE INTERCEPTION.  BALLGAME.  BINGO.  EVERYBODY EXHALE.

5:08 - Victory formation on first down...

5:08 - Victory formation on second down...

5:09 - Victory formation on third down...ballgame.  Whew.

Mizzou played with fire repeatedly but escaped Waco without getting burned. Granted, the karma would reverse itself the next year, when Briles' Bears cut the Tigers down in Columbia despite approximately 800 passing yards from Blaine Gabbert, but that was something of a fair trade: Mizzou wouldn't have won the 2008 North title without this win.

FOOTBALL STUDY HALL

The Baylor Bears And The Celebrity Hot Tub Party

For starters, Baylor recovered an inordinate amount of fumbles in 2010.  They went 3-1 in close games last year, recovering 11 of 18 fumbles in those games; a shift of a couple turnovers could have made the difference in one or two of those games and completely redefined Baylor's turnaround year.  (Among other things, they fumbled five times against Texas but recovered four of them.)

Beyond that, it's hard to imagine the Baylor offense improving too much -- they were already at a pretty high level -- but it's a lot easier to imagine their defense regressing with the loss of Taylor and some key defensive backs.

The key to reaching bowl eligibility again will be a fast start.  The Stephen F. Austin, Rice and Iowa State home games are obviously essential wins, but it would behoove the Bears to knock off Kansas State in Manhattan and get to 4-1 (or 5-0 with an upset over TCU) as well.  Of BU's final seven opponents ... five will likely be ranked in the preseason top 25 (at Texas A&M, at Oklahoma State, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas).  Yikes.  This is a tough schedule to maneuver, and though we can guarantee Baylor will be all sorts of entertaining -- as long Robert Griffin is on the field, I'm watching -- it's hard to guarantee that they will continue to rise as a program.  Prove me wrong, Hot Tub.

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