Baylor Is Playoff-Worthy Thanks to a Prolific Offense
It is football gospel that if you have two quarterbacks, you really have none.
Judging by some improbable, high-stakes performances in the college ranks over the last two seasons, it’s perhaps time to retire that statement as a tired, old cliché.
Exhibit A: The 2014 Ohio State Buckeyes. After losing their starting quarterback, Braxton Miller, to a shoulder injury in the preseason, the Buckeyes propelled themselves into the College Football Playoff picture on the arm and legs of backup J.T. Barrett. When Barrett went down with an ankle fracture in the regular season finale against Michigan, Ohio State turned to third-stringer Cardale Jones. The rest is College Football Playoff history.
Exhibit B: The 2015 Baylor Bears. Baylor stayed alive in the playoff chase by crushing the previously unbeaten Oklahoma State in Stillwater 45-35. Remarkably, Baylor did it without Heisman hopeful Seth Russell, and with not one backup quarterback, but two.
(Note that Saturday also offered a massive dose of irony for the other Power 5 school, Ohio State, who lost their first game of the season. Michigan State beat the Buckeyes with, you guessed it, second- and third-string quarterbacks.)
Baylor’s reserve quarterback duo of freshman Jarrett Stidham and sophomore Chris Johnson dazzled, leading the Bears to 700 yards of total offense, 393 of which came through the air. Johnson looked particularly impressive in emergency duty. Despite not throwing a pass all season, he connected on 39-yard and 71-yard second-half touchdown passes to put Baylor up as many as 24 points.
In all, the Bears ran 103 plays at nearly a 7 yards per play clip. And they did all this while being minus-three in turnover margin.
File that in the college football dictionary under “statement win.”
For those who track advanced metrics, Baylor’s dominance shouldn’t have come as a surprise. The Big 12 elite -- and the Bears, specifically -- have been the darling of the stat heads all season long.
Baylor is currently second in the nation in nERD, numberFire’s overall team efficiency rating, only behind the lone team to knock them off: Oklahoma. ESPN’s Football Power Index also rates Baylor second behind the Sooners. Bill Connelly’s S&P+ is a bit more conservative on Baylor at sixth, but even those rankings put the Bears ahead of other key contenders, including Notre Dame, Florida, and Michigan State.
Driving those lofty rankings is the prolific Baylor offense, regardless of who is taking the snaps. The Bears are the most efficient offense in the nation according numberFire, ESPN, Bill Connelly, and many others. The ranking is buoyed by Baylor’s 7.8 yards per play against Division I opponents, tops in the nation by a half yard over second-ranked Western Kentucky.
Baylor is doing it with a balanced attack. Thanks to perhaps the FBS’ most dynamic receiver corps in Corey Coleman (1,306 yards, 20 touchdowns), KD Cannon (774 yards, 6 touchdowns), and Jay Lee (714 yards, 8 touchdowns), numberFire rates the Baylor passing game first -- and by a large margin. Shock Linwood and a powerful offensive line lead numberFire’s 13th-ranked rushing attack. Baylor currently ranks fourth in the country with 5.8 yards per carry against FBS schools.
These are media descriptions of Baylor’s playoff chances even after winning at Boone Pickens Stadium on Saturday.
But don’t count Baylor out for two reasons. First, it’s clear the committee changes opinion the way most of us change lanes in rush hour traffic. Don’t forget that last year the committee dropped TCU from fourth to sixth in its final rankings after the Horned Frogs won a conference game by 52 points to close the season. Expect the unexpected.
Second, we’ve seen chaos ensue before, and things could still go awry for many of the presumed playoff favorites. Put more directly, if Baylor wins out and enough other dominoes fall, the Bears could be a virtual playoff lock.
Of course, the Bears first need to win at injury-riddled TCU this Friday (they are currently a 1.5-point favorite) and then take out rival Texas the first Saturday in December. nERD suggests that Baylor should be able to take care of business, giving the Bears a big edge over both TCU (28.41 to 18.03) and Texas (28.41 to 2.64) in a vacuum.
Baylor will also likely need some help from some unlikely allies.
Domino 1: Leans Likely
Stanford. Notre Dame has been in or hanging around the top four playoff spots since the committee released its first rankings on November 3. But despite a 10-1 record, Notre Dame’s biggest test awaits in Paolo Alto this weekend. To stake claim to one of the four playoff spots, Notre Dame must beat the Cardinal as 3.5-point underdogs. Stanford, themselves, were once playoff contenders before dropping a shootout against Oregon. The metrics from a variety of sites, including us, like Stanford to win outright here.
Dominos 2 and 3: Toss Ups
Michigan. From players announcing they are going pro to finger-pointing at the playcalling, Ohio State appears to be in disarray after losing at the Horseshoe to Michigan State. But what is most troubling is that the team appears to be imploding while still soundly in the playoff mix. However, a defeat to two-loss Michigan (a 1.5-point favorite), a team with ultra-slim playoff chances, would officially end Ohio State’s dreams of a repeat. FPI projects Ohio State’s win probability near 58 percent, and nERD gives Ohio State a narrow advantage on a neutral field, 20.21 to 17.71. But with Michigan hosting the Buckeyes in the Big House, this looks like a coin flip.
Florida State. The Seminoles -- nERD’s 13th-ranked team -- are out of the playoff conversation, but they could play the role of spoiler on Saturday in Gainesville, where they are currently a one-point road favorite. A loss to the Florida State would send the Gators (21st in nERD) packing with two losses on the season, regardless of what they do in the SEC Championship.
Domino 4: Leans Unlikely
Oklahoma State. That’s right. The Bears are counting on the team they just drubbed. The Cowboys must hand Oklahoma their second loss, which would eliminate the Sooners from Big 12 Championship and playoff contention. ESPN’s FPI gives Oklahoma 68 percent chance of winning against Oklahoma State and thus winning the Big 12. But with the conference’s best healthy quarterback and a stellar record of playing above expectations in Stillwater, Oklahoma State will be anything but a doormat in Bedlam.
Other Dominos: Long Shots
Auburn defeats Alabama. This result would put Ole Miss into the SEC title game and leave Florida -- which would represent the SEC East -- as the conference’s sole playoff contender, despite almost losing to both Vanderbilt and Florida Atlantic in November. But it may take another miracle Kick Six for Auburn to topple its Iron Bowl foe. FPI gives the Tigers only a 22 percent chance to pull the upset.
Penn State defeats Michigan State. A Spartan loss would end their playoff chances and would leave the winner of the Ohio State-Michigan as the representative of the Big 10 East. FPI, however, likes Michigan State to win about 80 percent of the time.
This is hardly an exhaustive list of possible outcomes that could help Baylor climb the playoff ladder. But with just a few dominos toppling in the right direction, the Bears, even with backup quarterbacks under center, could find themselves in the Final Four and with the familiar role of “The Team That No One Wants to Face.”
The metrics certainly believe so.