Coming off a season in which they won a conference title, 2022 hasn’t quite lived up to the hopes of the Baylor Bears.
We’re talking about a team that was picked by members of the media as the Big 12 favorite in the preseason. But after eight games, Baylor sits at 5-3 overall and 3-2 in conference play. Given that the Bears finish the season with Kansas State, TCU and Texas in their final three contests of the regular season, their bowl eligibility may hinge on securing a win over the Oklahoma Sooners on Saturday.
So, motivation aside, what should concern OU about the underdog Bears this weekend? Primarily, whatever kind of defensive game plan Baylor head coach Dave Aranda and defensive coordinator Ron Roberts can cook up. (N.B.: Cody Alexander’s MatchQuarters Substack ($) is a great resource for breakdowns of Aranda’s strategies and tactics, along with just about any other defensive guru out there.)
The Baylor braintrust got a look at OU’s new offensive scheme last year when the Bears drew Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl. In the swan song for Jeff Lebby as the Rebels’ offensive coordinator before he relocated to Norman, Baylor put the Ole Miss O in jail for four quarters (albeit without facing Matt Corral for most of the contest). The Rebs compiled 322 total yards on 88 offensive plays for a piddling average of 3.7 yards per snap in a 21-7 loss to the Bears. Notably, Baylor rang up 10 sacks in the game and picked off three Ole Miss passes.
Aranda and Roberts didn’t get overly exotic with how they combatted the Rebels offense. For reference’s sake, here’s what the Bears rolled out when they played Oklahoma in 2021:
With the Sooners lining up in 11 personnel (one running back and one tight end) and three receivers to the boundary side of the formation, Baylor counters with what is essentially a 4-2-5 alignment. The Bears are using a four-man front that includes a stand-up outside linebacker. Behind them are two interior LBs; two cornerbacks; a nickel lined up to the boundary; and two deep safeties. Note that Baylor generally tasked the nickel (No. 8 Jalen Pitre) with playing to the side of the offensive passing strength.
Against Ole Miss, Baylor toggled between its base 4-2-5 personnel and a package with six defensive backs:
The image above comes from the Rebels’ first offensive play of the game. Ole Miss brings out 10 personnel (one RB, no TEs) with four wide receivers. The Bears counter by pulling an inside LB off the field in favor of an extra safety (highlighted).
When Ole Miss put its TE back in the game, Baylor went back to its standard grouping by inserting an ILB (highlighted) back in the game for the sixth safety:
For the most part, Baylor gave Ole Miss two-high safety looks throughout the game to discourage deep shots. The Bears relied on heat-seeking missile Jalen Pitre to patrol the perimeter on guard against the horizontal elements of the Rebs offense.
What’s different this year?
This Baylor D looks weaker than the 2021 unit in many respects. Comparing SP+ measures, Baylor has dropped from 8th nationally last year to 50th in defensive rushing success rate this season. At the same time, the Bears’ rushing marginal efficiency fell from 11th to 51st overall.
The same goes for defending the pass. Baylor’s passing success rate is down from 38th in the country in ‘21 to 74th in ‘22. The Bears also rank 74th this season in passing marginal efficiency, declining from 54th last season.
In other words, whether they’re running or throwing the ball, Baylor’s opponents are finding it easier to churn out consistent gains and stay on schedule this year. It’s worth noting that the Bears ranked in the top 20 last season in forcing third-and-long situations at 55%. That number has dropped off dramatically to 46.9%, which comes in 84th overall.
However, much like OU’s previous opponent, Iowa State, Baylor is excelling in preventing big plays. The Bears have improved from 89th nationally in rushing marginal explosiveness to 39th. Additionally, they rank in the top 15 in passing marginal explosiveness, up from 56th a year ago.
Not much has changed from the standpoint of schemes and alignment. Taken as a whole, however, it does appear as though Aranda and Roberts have decided to dial back some of the aggressiveness. The tradeoff has been fewer boom-or-bust events for more sustained drives. That probably owes in large measure to the departures of a handful of veterans from the ‘21 team, including LB Terrel Bernard and defensive backs JT Woods and Raleigh Texada. Most importantly, Baylor no longer has its designated chaos agent Pitre hovering around the line of scrimmage.
Philosophically, that means OU may take a similar approach on offense this week to what we saw a week ago – accepting consistent gains and picking spots for big plays. Rather than challenging the Bears up the middle, which is where strength of their defense lies, look for OU to work horizontally around the edges of the line of scrimmage.
Finally, OU needs a bounce-back game from receiver Marvin Mims after last week’s horror show in Ames. He and Jalil Farooq should find some openings to take advantage of Baylor’s inconsistent corners in a limited number of opportunities down the field.