SQ College Football Top-25 Preview: #5 Baylor

The college football staff at SQ have put together a ranking of the top-25 teams heading into 2015. To get our readers prepared for the upcoming season, the staff has created a preview for each one of these teams. Auburn came in at #6, but today’s focus is on #5 Baylor.

Team: Baylor

SQ Ranking: 5

2014 Record: 11-2

Finish in AP Poll: 7th

Head Coach: Art Briles (8th year)

Key Arrivals: QB Jarrett Stidham, WR Blake Lynch, DB J.W. Ketchum III

Key Departures: QB Bryce Petty, ILB Bryce Hager, WR Antwan Goodley, WR Levi Norwood, P Spencer Roth

Previewing the Baylor Offense: Art Briles is an offensive guru, and has done wonders since taking over the Baylor program. Over the past four seasons, Baylor's offense has consistently been ranked in the top-5 in scoring, with the Bears leading the nation in 2013 and 2014.

Baylor will be transitioning to a new quarterback in 2015, but that's not a problem as the offense has withstood that test with ease before. It survived the departure of RG3, Nick Florence and now it'll move forward without Bryce Petty.

Seth Russell will take over under center for the Bears in 2015, and in limited time the last two seasons, he's shown he can handle the job. Between 2013 and 2014, Russell threw for 1,231 yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. Russell can also run a little bit, rushing for 332 yards over the past two years.

What's important though, is the fact that Russell won't have too much pressure on him given the weapons at his disposal. The Bears have a stellar offensive line led by All-American left tackle Spencer Drango, who will probably be Russell's new best friend, protecting him from blind-sided hits. Baylor also returns a 1,000-yard rusher in Shock Linwood (1,252 yards, 16 touchdowns) and the top returning receiving duo in K.D. Cannon and Corey Coleman. The duo combined for 2,149 yards and 19 touchdowns last season.

However, Baylor may have one of the "biggest" secret weapons on offense come 2015. The Bears will be trotting out 6'7", 410-pound LaQuan McGowan as a tight end when the season begins, and don't let his size fool you as he has great athletic ability. He surprised everyone when he caught a pass during last year's Cotton Bowl, but that wasn't the end of his time as a receiving threat as he'll be used plenty this season.

Even with a new quarterback, Baylor shouldn't experience too much if any drop off from its offensive production in 2014. With the talent and amount of weapons Art Briles has, he'll find a way to score a ton of points again.

Previewing the Baylor Defense: Looking at the Baylor defense, there are a couple things the Bears need to improve on as 2015 rolls around. One of those things is limiting the big play. The Bears gave up 62 plays that measured between 30 and 50 yards last season, which was the worst in the Big 12. Then there's the fact that Baylor ranked 101st in the nation in opponent redzone scoring percentage (86.84%). But fear not, Baylor has the pieces that can make this defense one of the better units in the conference. 

It starts up front on the line with the monster defensive end, Shawn Oakman. Oakman, whose jacked physique nearly broke the internet, set the school single-season record in sacks (11) and was close to breaking the school record for tackles for loss in a season with 19.5. Along with the star defensive end, Baylor has All-Big 12 nose tackle Andrew Billings (11.5 tackles for loss, nine QB hurries) and freshman All-American K.J. Smith (five sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss) returning to help anchor the line.

Moving to the middle of the defense, the Bears found a surprising leader in Taylor Young who finished the season second on the team with 92 tackles, tallying 8.5 tackles for loss and four sacks along the way. Former JUCO transfer Grant Campbell is set to take over for three-time All-Big 12 linebacker Bryce Hager up the middle. Travon Blanchard will be the team's starting nickelback, which will be an improvement due to his ability to cover ground quickly.

The secondary is where it gets a little rocky. To be fair though, all four of Baylor's starters last season were inexperienced first-year starters. With more experience and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett being able to create a more effective rotation with healthy bodies, this secondary should take a step forward.

Three Key Games:

1. Baylor vs. Texas Tech (Played at AT&T Stadium), Oct. 3rd - Last year's matchup was one that Texas Tech wish it could have back, allowing Baylor to escape with a 48-46 victory. This season, the contest serves as the opening conference bout for both teams and the introduction of Seth Russell to the Big 12. By this game Russell should have a groove going with the offense, but Baylor's defense could hinder it in this one. Texas Tech QB Patrick Mahomes torched the Bears secondary for 598 yards and six touchdowns.

2. Baylor at Oklahoma State, Nov. 21st - Baylor does not fare well when traveling to Stillwater to take on Oklahoma State. In fact, the Bears are 0-11 when visiting the Cowboys, dating back to 1972. Oklahoma State could be one of the best surprises in 2015 with new QB Mason Rudolph ready to do just as much damage as he did when he started the team's three remaining games last season.

3. Baylor at TCU, Nov. 27th - Every game in the regular season will be building up to this matchup between these two Big 12 giants. Splitting the conference title with TCU didn't sit well with Baylor last season, especially after beating the Horned Frogs during the regular season. When these two teams meet again in 2015, there is sure to be an explosion of offense as last year's meeting produced 119 total points.

Final Analysis: The post-Bryce Petty era is now looming over Waco, but Baylor just shrugs and points to the next man up. Seth Russell will command the offense, but he will have plenty of help from playmakers like K.D. Cannon, Corey Coleman and Shock Linwood. The combination of those players will make Baylor's offense deadly once more in 2015.

The defense should be good enough in the front seven to hold off opposing offenses, while the secondary works out the issues that made it look atrocious at times last season. If the secondary can get it together and the defense can stop opponents in the redzone, Baylor will have one of the most complete teams in the country. 

Baylor has enough talent offensively to roll through the Big 12 and emerge with an 11-1 record. Heck, I wouldn't be shocked if the Bears finished the regular season undefeated and wound up playing in the College Football Playoff. After all, that's pretty much the only way Baylor will make it to the big dance.

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