By Shehan Jeyarajah
Expectations abound for Baylor football after unexpectedly beating the odds to win the 2013 Big 12 Championship in the final game at Floyd Casey Stadium, the first Big 12 Championship in program history. For the first time in recent memory, Baylor has the target on its back.
“I think it’s inspiring,” head coach Art Briles said. “It keeps your senses more alert and brings an added level of responsibility to you. It wasn’t like we went out and said, ‘Here’s five bucks, respect us.’ We went out and earned it. Right now, Baylor is respected.”
While optimism remains high, Baylor will be forced to replace a variety of pieces on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball heading into the 2014 season.
On offense, Baylor has players to replace, but all is dwarfed by the return of senior quarterback Bryce Petty. The fifth-year player returns to school following a monster first year starting for the Bears last season. In his 13 starts, Petty was fourth in the nation with 4,200 passing yards, 11th with 32 passing touchdowns and second in the nation in passer rating.
Petty will be joined by arguably the best group of wide receivers in the country in 2014. The Bears lose only Tevin Reese at the wide receiver position. Baylor returns senior wide receiver Antwan Goodley, who was named to multiple All-America teams after finishing with 1,339 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns.
Behind Goodley, Baylor returns five other receivers with starting experience in junior Jay Lee, sophomore Robbie Rhodes, sophomore Corey Coleman, senior Clay Fuller and senior Levi Norwood. The rotation will be augmented with four incoming wide receiver prospects who are all ranked in the ESPN Top 300: Davion Hall, K.D Cannon, Ishmael Zamora and Chris Platt.
Despite losing running back Lache Seastrunk to the NFL, sophomore Shock Linwood showed last season that he is ready to come in and contribute immediately. Despite being listed as the third running back on the depth chart, Linwood finished sixth in the Big 12 in total rushing yards with 881 yards. He broke out in back-to-back games against Oklahoma and Texas Tech. Over the two games, Linwood accumulated 369 yards and a touchdown on 52 carries.
Linwood will be supported in the rotation by backup sophomore Devin Chafin, redshirt freshman Johnny Jefferson and true freshman Terence Williams. Jefferson turned heads with a dominating performance in the Baylor spring game on April 5 and is expected to be an essential part of the rotation.
The offensive line has question marks, but there are leaders to pick up the slack. Junior left tackle Spencer Drango, senior right tackle Troy Baker and right guard Desmine Hilliard are all returning starters for the Bears. Sophomore center Kyle Fuller and junior left guard LaQuan McGowan do not have significant playing experience, but other players speak highly of the duo.
The questions for Baylor largely come on the defensive side of the ball. The Bears will be forced to replace seven starters on defense, including four of the five biggest contributors in the 2013 secondary. Of the four replacements, three are sophomores or younger, with the other being junior college transfer Chris Sanders, who enters with two years of eligibility remaining.
Where Baylor has it all figured out is the defensive line. While the Bears lost defensive ends Chris McAllister and Terrance Lloyd to graduation, they arguably are even better next season at every position. Junior defensive ends Shawn Oakman and Jamal Palmer each received significant playing time at their position last fall. The same is true of sophomore defensive tackle Andrew Billings and junior Beau Blackshear.
In addition to the experience they return, Baylor also has two highly rated players who sat out the 2013 season. Sophomore Javonte Magee was a five-star recruit out of high school who received playing time during his true freshman season.
Junior Sam Ukwuachu started 12 games for Boise State in 2012 before transferring to Baylor to complete his final two years of eligibility. Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett has said he expects both to push other guys to the bench.
While the team may take time to come together, they will have the opportunity thanks to their scheduling. They open the season with an easy nonconference slate against SMU and Northwestern State in Waco before traveling to Buffalo, N.Y., for their third game.
Baylor will open Big 12 against Iowa State in Ames, Iowa, before reaching their first test against Texas in Austin under new head coach Charlie Strong.
The modest opening slate will give Baylor an opportunity to gain consistency and ready their defense for the real test of the season on Nov. 8 against Oklahoma in Norman. Many pundits are picking the winner of this game to win the Big 12 Championship.
Baylor will open its Big 12 Championship defense on Aug. 31 against SMU.
They will also open the $270 million McLane Stadium, the new home of the Baylor Bears on the Brazos.