The Texas Longhorns, now 5-1 (3-0) and No. 9 in the nation, aren’t the only Big 12 program enjoying a significant step forward this season. The other is the Baylor Bears, which have spent the first half of the 2018 slate doubling their 2017 win total, and then doubling that total to sit at 4-2 and 2-1 in the conference after notching wins over Kansas and Kansas State.
A forgiving front half of the schedule has certainly helped to that end, as Baylor’s four wins have come over foes with a combined record of 9-13 to date, while the Bears have seen two opponents with a winning record, which account for the program’s two losses. But nevertheless, Matt Rhule’s 2018 roster boasts considerably more experience, talent, and versatility, and that’s why Texas head coach Tom Herman and his team aren’t overlooking the Bears entering Saturday’s Big 12 showdown.
“Baylor is 4-2, 2-1 in conference, and they have a ridiculously high-powered offense that can run and throw the football,” Herman said during his Monday afternoon press conference. “I think that’s the biggest thing. It’s just a really good football team that we’re playing, and in the Big 12 they’re all going to be.”
When all else fails, at least Baylor can rely upon its offense moving the ball, thanks in large part to a bevy of versatile playmakers. Per usual, that begins with notable play from the quarterback position, and Baylor is getting exactly that from sophomore Charlie Brewer, whom Herman raved about this week.
“He’s really good. Has a chance to be special. He’s a true sophomore. I can’t say enough about his development. We saw him as a true freshman. They’ve opened up the offense a little bit more, that’s undeniable. That’s a credit to their coaching staff, too, for recognizing the personnel that they have and the fact that they’ve got a really, really, really, really good quarterback.
You know, I think if his career stays on the trajectory that it’s on, he’s going to be in that conversation in a year or two of the great ones that have come through this league time and time again.
I think he’s really, really special.”
After beginning the season amid a quarterback battle with Jalan McClendon, Brewer has taken control of QB1 duties and ran with it; literally. Excluding sacks, which have been frequent as the Bears rank 107th in sacks allowed, Brewer has amassed 209 yards and four touchdowns with his feet, courtesy of 10 carries chewing up at least 10 yard, and he’s been equally as impressive through the air, if not more so. Brewer has completed 132-of-206 attempts thus far, accounting for 1,558 yards and nine touchdowns, with only two interceptions.
However, though he’s been undeniably improved this season, it certainly helps when you’re able to rely upon premier pass catchers, as Brewer has with Tennessee transfer Jalen Hurd and Denzel Mims. The two have combined to haul in 74 receptions for 999 yards and eight touchdowns, which is even more remarkable considering Mims missed the Duke game, a 40-27 loss, with a hamstring injury.
Senior Chris Platt has emerged as a threat as well, averaged 13.6 yards per reception, and elsewhere, the ball carriers out of the backfield have proven impactful in a passing game that ranks 9th nationally behind 325.5 yards per game.
For example, JaMycal Hasty leads all Big 12 running backs with 18 receptions, which have gone for 133 yards, but he still trails sophomore Trestan Ebner, who accounted for 137 yards on 15 receptions. When the two are asked to run, they do so notably well. Hasty leads the running back room with 48 carries for 285 yards and three touchdowns, but sophomore John Lovett isn’t far behind with 44 carries for 233 yards and three scores. Ebner has received 30 carries to date, with which he’s added 170 yards, but the whole has been greater than its parts, as Baylor’s three primary backs are each averaging more than five yards per carry.
While Baylor would prefer to attack Texas through the air, it is capable of doing it a bit of both ways if the Longhorns defense doesn’t come to play. However, the Horns experienced secondary has held its own against multiple elite receiver corps in wins over USC, TCU, and Oklahoma. Texas has allowed a number of big plays through the air this season, but also accounted for numerous turnovers (seven interceptions), and if the Texas rush defense (132.8 per game) can shut Baylor’s ground game down early, the secondary could benefit from forcing the Bears offense to become one-dimensional, as it has shown a tendency to do at times.
On one hand, Baylor’s defense presents enough firepower to keep the Bears in any game, but on the other hand, the defense has been a bit of a disaster and is liable, if not likely, to allow a few opponents to run away with the game before it’s all said and done.
The Bears are allowing 32.3 points per game, which is the worst effort in the Big 12, as is the rush defense giving way to 193.7 yards per game. The defensive line features a fair amount of talent, such as James Lynch (20 tackles, 4 sacks, 6.5 TFL), Greg Roberts (14 tackles, 3 sacks, 4 TFL), and the linebacking corps has seen Clay Johnston, Terrel Bernard, and Jordan Williams combined for 76 tackles, but the big bodies throughout the front two levels just haven’t been able to find much success overall, especially as of late.
For example, last week, Kansas State’s veteran offensive line pushed Baylor up and down the field, and the result was the Wildcats rushing for 319 yards and averaging 9.1 yards per carry. The Longhorns haven’t seen a running back surpass the 100-yard mark in 17 consecutive games, so if Baylor is dealt a heavy dose of Keaontay Ingram, that could be set to change on Saturday.
The secondary faces a similar circumstance.
Safeties Chris Miller and Verkedric Vaughns are solid, totaling 57 tackles, as is Temple cornerback transfer Derek Thomas, who leads the team with three passes defended to complement one interception. The Bears have allowed an average of 217.8 yards per game through the air this season, but Baylor has faced only one passing offense that’s currently ranked within the top 80, which was Oklahoma, and the Sooners air-raid offense enjoyed 432 passing yards in a 66-33 win.
Even if the Texas offense is clicking on all cylinders, it likely won’t enjoy quite that much success through the air, but with Sam Ehlinger looking as steady as any Texas quarterback since Colt McCoy, and junior receivers Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey blossoming into stars, the Longhorns should be able to have their way with Baylor through the air.
The bottom line is this — Texas is, from nearly top to bottom, the better team, and if the Horns come to play and don’t endure a Red River hangover, Texas will be 6-1 (4-0) by Saturday evening. Too many match ups favor Texas, as does the overall talent level set to take the field.
But that said, Baylor is far from the pushover team it was in 2017 when it won only one game, and the offense is more than capable of lighting it up and keeping this one too close for comfort.
Prediction: Texas 38, Baylor 24