By Joshua Davis & Tyler Cagle, Sports Writers
Baylor football began its 2015 campaign with hopes of making the College Football Playoff, but a bevy of crucial injuries proved too costly as the Bears finished their season 9-3.
After ending fourth in the Big 12, head coach Art Briles and Baylor are left thinking about what could’ve been.
Although the outcome didn’t meet the expectations, the season was not a complete loss, players said.
“There are some teams that love to go 9-3, so I don’t really see it as a disappointment,” senior left tackle Spencer Drango said. “The disappointing thing is not sending the seniors out with a win at home. But we’re still going to a bowl, so we’re excited to be a part of that.”
Injuries played a big role in the Bears ability to cope with the gauntlet of games toward the latter part of their schedule.
Whether it was a quarterback, running back, defensive lineman or defensive back, Baylor was unable to keep its best players healthy.
After reaching the highest AP ranking in program history (No. 2), the Bears had made the case to be one of the best teams in the nation.
Had the Bears been fully healthy, the turnout of Baylor’s 2015 season could have been significantly different.
Despite the fourth place finish in the conference, injuries put a damper on an otherewise extraordinary Baylor team, Coleman said.
“This was probably the best Baylor team that’s been here, the record doesn’t show it,” Coleman said.
Baylor faces No. 10 UNC in the Russell Athletic Bowl on Dec. 29 in Orlando, Fla.
Junior quarterback Seth Russell and junior wide receiver Corey Coleman were forming into one of the most dynamic duos in college football, and Baylor’s offense appeared unstoppable.
Coleman made opposing cornerbacks look foolish at times, as he shattered the Baylor record for most receiving touchdowns in a season with 20.
With his stellar season, the All-American receiver said he will head for the NFL Draft after the bowl game. According to his head coach, Coleman may be the best receiver ever to come through Baylor
“We’ve had some great receivers here … but what makes Corey great is that he’s very dynamic with the football,” Briles said. “He’s a very aggressive receiver going after the ball – very sudden, strong, powerful and confident. That’s what separates him [from the greats]. He’s a very passionate guy that plays with a lot of emotion, and when his emotions are in check, he’s about as good as there is.”
And just when teams thought they had Briles’ offense and Coleman figured out, the Bears could throw in a hiccup with sophomore wide receiver KD Cannon and senior wide receiver Jay Lee.
By many accounts, Baylor had the recipe for success.
The balance between the Bears’ passing attack and their ground game, with junior runningback Shock Linwood leading the charge, looked like a juggernaut. The running back’s uncanny ability to remain on his feet and pick up first downs helped Baylor own the ranking of No. 1 offense in the nation.
But that all changed after the Bears’ homecoming game against Iowa State.
Russell was ruled out for the season, and true freshman Jarrett Stidham took over. Despite many people doubting the young signal-caller, Stidham appeared to be able to handle the spotlight of being the QB of the most explosive offense in the nation.
After two noteworthy performances, the Bears were hit again by an unfortunate injury. Stidham broke his ankle in the first half of the game against Oklahoma State and was ruled out for the rest of the season.
When all appeared to be lost, third string QB sophomore Chris Johnson took over and helped Baylor earn its most impressive victory of the season.
The inexperience of Johnson would show in the Bears’ next game against rival TCU. In what several analysts described as one of the worst torrential downpours in recent history, Baylor lost a war of attrition 28-21 in double overtime.
Hoping to right the ship in their final game against Texas at McLane Stadium, the Bears unbelievingly lost another quarterback.
Johnson picked up a concussion in the first quarter, and junior wide receiver Lynx Hawthorne was forced to play an unknown position.
The impromptu switch ultimately cost Baylor the game and its bid at the Sugar Bowl, as Briles scripted an offensive game plan of nearly all running plays.
After facing questions and doubts during the preseason, the Bears’ defense showed it was a quality unit. The stats don’t entirely show the impact of the Bears’ elite play on defense this season.
After combining for 90 tackles, 31.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks last season, senior defensive end Shawn Oakman and senior defensive tackle Andrew Billings have relatively underperformed on paper. The duo has registered 80 tackles, 27.5 for loss and only 9.5 sacks in 2015.
The true gem of the Baylor defense was sophomore nickelback Travon Blanchard.
Blanchard stepped up to the Bear position in 2015, a hybrid linebacker/safety position in defensive coordinator Phil Bennett’s scheme.
He offered the Bears a rangy, athletic tackler that could step up in the run as well as defend the slots.
Blanchard accounted for 80 tackles, 7.5 for loss and forced five turnovers. His ball-hawk abilities allowed the Bears to force a turnover in their first 9 games.
The Bears’ secondary was vastly improved from past seasons. After ranking 104th in the nation last season, the Bears finished the regular season 77th in passing yards allowed per game in 2015.
With All-Big 12 safety Orion Stewart out, sophomore cornerback Chance Waz filled in at the safety.
In his 11 games of action, Waz racked up 59 tackles, starting nine games in 2015.
Junior cornerback Xavien Howard finished the season with five interceptions and nine passes defended. Howard’s big time play and ability to cover one on one with receivers relieved stress for Baylor’s safeties.
Junior cornerback Ryan Reid finished the season with 3 picks, all coming in zone coverage and showed his improvements on the field.
With a battered Baylor secondary, the play of Howard and Reid came at the right time for the Bears.
The Bears ranked 52nd in the nation, allowing 156 rushing yards per game this season. Although the Bears started off rocky against the rush, they gradually improved.
The pinnacle of the Bears’ rush defense came against the Oklahoma State Cowboys in Stillwater. The Cowboys only gained 8 yards on the ground against Baylor, averaging 0.3 yards per carry.
The Bears have shown they have the potential to be great defense. Lost in the numbers is the fact that the Bears do play in the Big 12 conference, where there are many more possessions due to the pace of play.
With Oakman, Campbell, Blackshear and Palmer all moving on as seniors, the Bears could again field an experienced defense in 2016 led by Young, Billings, Stewart and Howard.