How good is Baylor? Tough final stretch will give us answer—and help determine the Big 12's Playoff fate
As college football hurtles toward the final quarter of the season, there's an aura of mystery hovering around the Big 12. At this point, obvious favorites have emerged in the Pac-12 (Stanford), Big Ten (Ohio State), ACC (Clemson) and SEC (Alabama). Independent Notre Dame ranks No. 5 in the College Football Playoff poll, with its only loss to No. 1 Clemson.
And with just four weeks remaining in the season, untested Baylor (8–0) has emerged as the Big 12's unproven favorite. The Bears haven't faced a ranked team, nor have they faced a team with a current record above .500. The next four weeks will offer a seemingly stout litmus test, as the Bears host No. 12 Oklahoma (8-1) in the weekend's top matchup and then travel to No. 6 Oklahoma State (9–0) and No. 13 TCU (8–1) before finishing with Texas in Waco on Dec. 5.
The four top Big 12 teams combined for just one notable non-league victory—Oklahoma's win at Tennessee in September. That means as the Big 12's best face off, they will be shrouded by skepticism. "I don't think we have a great team in our league this year," says a veteran Big 12 assistant who has studied all of the contenders. "I really don't. I don't think they'll be an undefeated team from our league."
Baylor is ranked No. 4 by the Associated Press, was No. 6 in the first College Football Playoff rankings last week and yet are still a largely unknown commodity. (Oklahoma State, fresh of a thumping of TCU, could seemingly jump Baylor in the CFP standings this week). The Bears have teased with potential, crushing opponents by 31.1 points this season and have a Heisman Trophy contender in receiver Corey Coleman, who has caught an astounding 20 touchdown passes. Opinions vary on Art Briles' team in part because there's so little evidence to properly evaluate the Bears.
"I'd say yes to that," says veteran Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads when asked if this was the best Baylor team he's seen. "Offensively, they've got all the weapons. They've got numerous receivers. They got a great running back. They've got an offense line that can protect and open holes."
But Baylor also has an unproven defense and a freshman quarterback (Jarrett Stidham) making his second career start on Saturday after a season-ending neck injury to starter Seth Russell on Oct. 24. Baylor also has flopped in its only marquee out-of-conference stages the past two years, getting waxed by Central Florida, 52–42 in the Fiesta Bowl two years ago and squandering a late lead against Michigan State in last year's 42–41 Cotton Bowl defeat. For now, it's difficult to project if this Baylor team can re-write the ending.
"They haven't played anyone," says the veteran Big 12 assistant coach. "I don't know if they're as good as they were last year. Their secondary is very average. Their field corner (Ryan Reid) is very average, their safeties are not great in space and their linebackers are very average. I'm not trying to say they are bad, but against a Top 5-tier team, that's where they'll struggle."
Could this all set up for another nightmare scenario for the Big 12, which got left out of the College Football Playoff last year? Oklahoma State is equally enigmatic, with its only win of note coming against TCU on Saturday. There's still a lot to learn about TCU (8–1) and Oklahoma (8–1), as the Horned Frogs lost to the only ranked opponent they've faced (Oklahoma State) and the Sooners lone ranked win at then-No. 23 Tennessee doesn't exactly pop like it did in September.
Kudos to the conference schedule maker—Commissioner Bob Bowlsby should take him to Whataburger this week—for lining up all these appetizing games late in the season. But if the Big 12 champion has one loss again, it's going to be easy to put them behind potential one-loss teams like Stanford, Notre Dame, LSU, Utah or Alabama, which had significantly stronger nonconference schedules. (Or, in independent Notre Dame's case, just played more good teams).
All of this could add up to a potentially messy end game for the Big 12 for the second straight season. Earlier in the year, it appeared that the ACC would be the league most likely left out of the playoff after a spate of non-league losses. (And if Clemson loses, that could well end up happening.) But with no team that separated itself in non-league play and the top teams all about to square off against each other, the Big 12 could face a war of attrition. For now, Baylor is the league's best hope. "We feel this is Coach Briles' best team since he's been at Baylor," athletic director Ian McCaw said on Sunday night. "We have the opportunity to prove that over next four games."
Baylor's non-conference schedule was Pillsbury soft—SMU, Lamar and Rice. It's something we'd admonish the Bears for if they hadn't been such a historically inept program for previous two decades before Briles arrived. College scheduling is typically done nearly a decade in advance, so Baylor was simply scheduling with the idea of scraping its way to a bowl. Ripping the Bears for a weak non-league slate would be like admonishing someone for not contacting a financial planner before winning PowerBall. (Remember it was only four years ago where there were discussions that Baylor could end up in the Big East.)
That said, the talk about Baylor's putrid non-league schedule is getting tiring now that the Bears are a perennial Big 12 contender. Baylor added Duke to the non-conference schedule in 2017 and '18 and McCaw said Sunday night that he's planning to announce a neutral-site game with an SEC foe in 2020. But next year, the Bears play Northwestern State, SMU and at Rice in non-conference, so similar criticism will follow. "They've played no one," says a different assistant who faced Baylor earlier this year. "No one. They're entirely overblown."
Until the injury to Russell, few questioned Baylor's offense. The Bears have a rugged and veteran offensive line that powers the No. 4 rush offense in the country (308.9 ypg). Tailback Shock Linwood leads the Big 12 in rushing with 1,046 yards, including an eye-popping 7.8 yards per carry. Coleman's 20 touchdown grabs are six more than the next highest player (TCU's Josh Doctson has 14). "Corey Coleman is a freak," says a third assistant coach who faced Baylor this year. "I've coached against lots of Pro Bowl wide receivers in college, and I've never seen one like him. He's a total freak."
The veteran Big 12 assistant said there's a blueprint to beating Baylor. Teams that are scared of the Bears passing the ball will get it run down their throat. He used West Virginia's gameplan in a 41–27 upset of Baylor last year as an example, as the Mountaineers forced the Bears to throw the ball and beat them with big plays over the top. "A lot of teams stay back and play base," the veteran Big 12 assistant said, "and they tear you to pieces."
Despite all the points, blowouts and Heisman talk, there's still a lot to learn about Baylor. With Oklahoma coming to town on Saturday, all eyes will be on Waco, Texas.
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Florida takes next step: winning SEC East title
When first-year Florida coach Jim McElwain initially met with his new team last December, he had one question for his players. "Why did you choose to come to Florida?" McElwain recalls asking.
The predominant answer that McElwain got was what the 10th-ranked Gators achieved Saturday with their tough 9–7 home win against Vanderbilt: to compete for championships.
With the triumph, Florida (8–1, 6–1) clinched its first SEC East title since 2009. It's quite a feat for McElwain, especially considering that he's done it without starting quarterback Will Grier, who was suspended last month for a year following a positive test for a performance-enhancing substance.
"What we've tried to accomplish is to get back where we belong," McElwain tells The Inside Read. "In the (SEC East), it's historically Florida that's always in the hunt. We accomplished that, but the interesting thing now is will our guys be satisfied with that?"
The answer figures to trace back to what McElwain told his team during that first meeting about their decision to attend Florida. "They're responsible for that choice and the choice of how they play and practice," McElwain says. "They've really bought into that. I'm just proud as hell of them."
McElwain's particularly happy for Florida's seniors, who until this season had never beaten Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina in the same season. "They came here to be in this position and now it's come to fruition," McElwain says. "For them, that's what makes it so special."
After Saturday's victory, McElwain congratulated his team in the locker room on taking "the first step to getting Florida back to where it belongs."
"We have some hungry guys," McElwain says. "They took ownership and responsibility. That's what's cool to see because in the end that's what's going to help them in life."
And with their next step: trying to win an SEC title.
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