The idea that Baylor can put up buckets of points regardless of who plays quarterback will be tested again. The Bears announced on Monday that starter Seth Russell will miss the rest of the season after undergoing surgery to repair damage to his cervical vertebra. “Seth exemplifies the spirit and will of our football team,” coach Art Briles said in a news release, “and through this our team will keep that spirit alive and well for him.”
In his first year as the starter, Russell had led Baylor to a 7–0 record and No. 2 ranking in the AP Poll. Through seven games he completed 59.5% of his passes for 2,104 yards with 29 touchdowns on 10.5 yards per attempt with a 189.72 pass efficiency rating. The fourth-year junior piloted a potent attack that leads the country in total offense (8.43 yards per play), points per game (61.1) and scoring margin (36.2) and ranks first in Football Outsiders’ offensive S&P + ratings.
While losing Russell is a huge blow, there’s reason to believe the Bears can remain in the hunt for a College Football Playoff berth.
Baylor will turn to Jarrett Stidham, a true freshman who played at Stephenville (Tex.) High—where Briles formerly served as head coach—and was ranked sixth among dual-threat quarterbacks in the class of 2015. Chris Johnson, the player the Bears reportedly moved to wide receiver in August ostensibly to clear room on the depth chart for Stidham, will serve as the backup. Stidham has played sparingly this season, but his body of work is impressive: 23 of 27, 319 yards, five touchdowns, 0 interceptions.
While it may be unrealistic to expect Baylor’s offense to pick up where it left off with Russell under center, Stidham represents a talented, if young, replacement with high upside. Baylor is idle this week before a trip to face 3–4 Kansas State on Nov. 5. That game will serve as an important tune-up for Stidham, as Baylor then enters the most challenging part of its schedule. After hosting No. 14 Oklahoma on Nov. 14, it will play at No. 12 Oklahoma State on Nov. 21 and No. 5 TCU on Nov. 27.
None of those teams boasts a top-notch defense—Oklahoma ranks first in the Big 12 in defensive S&P at No. 21—but both TCU (No. 2 in offensive S&P) and Oklahoma (No. 14) probably will be able to score frequently against the Bears. If that happens, it will fall upon Stidham to make sure his team keeps up.
The good news is Baylor features a dangerous cast of playmakers—including Heisman Trophy candidate Corey Coleman and talented running back Shock Linwood—that any quarterback would envy. Stidham may not be able to utilize them effectively as Russell did, but his recruiting credentials and limited performance suggest the Bears’ offense won’t drop off too much.