Baylor has finished four of the last five seasons ranked No. 13 or better in the final Associated Press poll, but it won’t this year after losing six straight heading into Dec. 27’s Cactus Bowl against Boise State.
It has been anything but normal for the Bears this season, still reeling from a sexual assault scandal that led coach Art Briles’ firing in May. Jim Grobe, who will coach Baylor in the bowl game, has served as the interim, but it will be his last game. Baylor officially hired Temple’s Matt Rhule on Tuesday after he led the Owls to back-to-back 10-win seasons.
Freshman Zach Smith has started the last three games for Baylor after senior Seth Russell was lost for the season with an ankle injury he suffered Nov. 12 against Oklahoma. Smith is among the top high school quarterbacks in Texas state history, throwing for 10,217 yards and 113 touchdowns.
“We’ve certainly had some challenges this year, but we’ve got a wonderful group of young men that I’ve been very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with,” Grobe said. “We’ve had some adversity, losing Seth Russell, was tough on our football team, but I’ve been really excited about Zach Smith.”
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Losing Russell has no doubt had a big effect on Baylor, as it has averaged 25.3 points in the four games including the Oklahoma loss, but was scoring 39.8 ppg the eight games prior. Still, the Bears’ offense has shown plenty of its usual fireworks, averaging 523.3 yards per game, using an up-tempo style with receivers spread out extremely wide to give running backs plenty of space. When they throw, it’s not a ton of short passes like Texas Tech or Washington State, but often on vertical, downfield routes.
Baylor moved into a 3-4 defense this season, and the Bears are 81st and 82nd in scoring defense and total defense, figures slightly worse than in recent years. The Bears have struggled on third down, allowing teams to convert 41.4 percent, a figure aided when they played well in the regular season finale, holding West Virginia to 4-of-14 on third downs.
Offensive leaders: QB Zach Smith, Fr. (88-157 passing for 1,151 yards, 10 TDs, six INTs), RB Terence Williams, So. (160 carries for 945 yards, 11 TDs), WR KD Cannon, Jr. (73 catches for 989 yards, 11 TDs)
Defensive leaders: LB Aiavion Edwards, Sr. (87 tackles), S Orion Stewart, Sr. (71 tackles, five INTs), DE K.J. Smith, Jr. (63 tackles, 9.5 TFL, six sacks), N Patrick Levels, Sr. (12 TFL, four fumble recoveries)
Scoring offense: 34th (34.9 ppg)
Total offense: 5th (523.3 ypg)
Rushing offense: 12th (250.3 ypg)
Passing offense: 28th (273.1 ypg)
Scoring defense: T-81st (30.4 ppg)
Total defense: 82nd (434.4 ypg)
Rushing defense: T-96th (210.5 ypg)
Passing defense: 62nd (223.9 ypg)
Third-down offense: 60th (41.5 percent)
Third-down defense: 80th (41.4 percent)
Turnover margin: T-108th (-0.58 per game)
Sept. 2 vs. Northwestern State W, 55-7
Sept. 10 vs. SMU W, 40-13
Sept. 16 at Rice W, 38-10
Sept. 24 vs. Oklahoma State W, 35-24
Oct. 1 at Iowa State W, 45-42
Oct. 15 vs. Kansas W, 49-7
Oct. 29 at Texas L, 35-34
Nov. 5 vs. TCU L, 62-22
Nov. 12 at Oklahoma L, 45-24
Nov. 19 at Kansas State L, 42-21
Nov. 25 at Texas Tech L, 54-35
Dec. 3 at West Virginia L, 24-21
According to Sports Business Daily, the Cactus Bowl gifts for players includes a gift suite (where players can choose from a selection of electronics, furniture and more up to $550), an Ogio backpack, a Fossil watch and a mixer bottle.