Once again, the Baylor football team projects to be in the mix to win the Big 12 championship.
For a change, the burden of proof in this title quest should fall heavily on the shoulders of the defense.
That is the mindset adopted by the nine returning starters from a Baylor defense that spent the waning moments of last season surrendering a 20-point lead in the final quarter of a 42-41 loss to Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl.
Bitter memories from that collapse, combined with the knowledge that Baylor’s normally high-powered offense will be directed by new quarterback Seth Russell, motivated defensive players throughout the off-season.
The goal, said defensive tackle Andrew Billings, is for a veteran defense to take pressure off a young quarterback for as long as necessary to allow No. 4 Baylor to earn a berth in this year’s College Football Playoff by winning a third consecutive Big 12 title.
“We know they have to adjust for a new quarterback and we want to make it as easy as possible on them,” Billings said. “We know there are people watching. And we don’t mind people watching because, as a defense, we have high expectations for ourselves. There’s been growth every year. The growth is the ability to come back strong, even with different people.”
We know there are people watching. And we don’t mind people watching because, as a defense, we have high expectations for ourselves.
Baylor defensive tackle Andrew Billings
For the Bears, who finished 50th last season among FBS schools in total defense (381.8 yards per game), the only fresh faces in this year’s lineup will be at two linebacker spots. Newcomers Grant Campbell and Travon Blanchard, who combined for 42 tackles in reserve duty last season, take over for departed starters Bryce Hager and Collin Brence.
The rest of the unit, which helped last year’s Bears rank seventh nationally in turnover margin (plus-13), returns intact with plans to permit a learning curve on offense, if needed, for Russell. Baylor, an 11-2 team last season, leads all Big 12 schools in returning starters (17) and returning defensive starters (9) this season.
“Even if we do have a drop-off on offense, which I doubt we will, I think we’ll be able to step up in the times we need to. With all the experience we have, I think the defense should be one of the strong parts of our team,” said defensive tackle Beau Blackshear, a fifth-year senior who collected 44 tackles and 9.5 tackles for losses last season.
That represents a significant shift for Baylor, where the Bears led the nation in total offense (581.5 yards per game last season; 618.8 in 2013) and scoring (48.2 avg. last year; 52.4 in 2013) the past two seasons while winning or sharing Big 12 titles. During those championship seasons, the Bears lost a combined four games in which they surrendered 46 points per game.
During Baylor’s championship seasons, the Bears lost a combined four games in which they surrendered 46 points per game.
In consecutive bowl losses, Baylor has scored more than 40 points but fell to UCF (52-42) and Michigan State (42-41) because of rampant defensive lapses. With so much veteran talent returning, coupled with an off-season spent elevating players’ skills, Billings predicted an end to high-profile implosions on his side of the ball.
“I have confidence we won’t make the same mistakes again,” said Billings, noting that the Cotton Bowl collapse “still hurts today, this very second.” Because that wound remains fresh, particularly among returnees in the secondary, strong safety Terrell Burt said he’s confident his fellow cover men joined him in addressing their deficiencies during the off-season.
“Everybody has to be better,” Burt said. “I grinded through the summer, put in the extra work so I’ll be ready this year. Other guys did, too. With these guys, talent-wise, you can tell they’re legit. Now it’s a matter of dealing with the adversity and all of that stuff.”
Baylor’s primary defensive assets include two preseason All-Americans (Billings, DE Shawn Oakman) and lots of proven depth in the trenches and the secondary. Defensive end Jamal Palmer, who missed the final eight games last season because of knee surgery, is back to full health after collecting 2.5 sacks and three TFLs in abbreviated duty in 2014.
Oakman, who led the team in sacks (11) and TFLs (19.5), is particularly enthused about Palmer’s return.
“He’s my partner on the other side and he makes my job 10 times easier. He’s doing great,” Oakman said. “Our team goal is to lead the Big 12 and the nation in sacks and tackles for loss.”
By doing that, Baylor defenders believe they will put themselves on a collision course with another Big 12 title and the CFP playoff berth that eluded them last year.
Coach Art Briles agreed.
“We like our guys. We’ve got young people that we have a lot of confidence in that have made plays for us in the past,” Briles said of the newcomers in his defensive lineup. “We always approach everything with confidence. But I think there’s fewer question marks this year with our team overall, particularly defensively. We have answers. We just need to make sure we have solid answers.”
Last year’s record: 11-2
Bowl result: Lost to Michigan State 42-41 in Cotton Bowl
Opener: Sept. 4 at SMU (6 p.m., ESPN)
Players to watch: QB Seth Russell, DE Shawn Oakman, WR Corey Coleman
Tarrant tie: DE Brian Nance (Euless Trinity)
Big 12 countdown
The Star-Telegram will spotlight each team leading up to TCU’s season opener at Minnesota on Thursday.
Aug. 24: TCU
Aug. 25: Texas Tech
Aug. 26: Oklahoma
Aug. 27: Oklahoma State
Aug. 28: Kansas
Aug. 29: Kansas State
Aug. 30: Texas
Tuesday: Iowa State
Wednesday: West Virginia