Baylor Bears Preview
  2011 SEASON IN REVIEW:The Baylor University football team enjoyed unprecedented success in 2011, logging only the second 10-win season in school history and going to its second straight bowl game. The Bears were led by Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, but he wasn't the only one to produce at a dizzyingly-high level for an offense that put up staggering numbers against some pretty good competition.

Baylor was tested right out of the chute, as TCU gave the Bears all they could handle in what wound up as a 50-48 win. Victories over Stephen F. Austin and Rice followed, but a one-point loss at Kansas State in the Big 12 opener started a string of bad luck (1-3 to open league action) that would ultimately cost the Bears any shot at winning the conference crown.

Not content to simply ride out the season, Griffin and company went on a tear over the final five games on the schedule, which included wins over both Oklahoma and Texas. The year culminated with a wild 67-56 triumph over Washington in the Alamo Bowl, and the coronation of Griffin III as the best player in the country.

S 2 vs. SMU
S17 vs. Sam Houston State
S21 at ULM
S29 at West Virginia
O13 vs. TCU
O20 at Texas
O27 at Iowa State
N 3 vs. Kansas
N10 at Oklahoma
N17 vs. Kansas State
N24 vs. Texas Tech (Arlington, TX)
D 1 vs. Oklahoma State
WR Lanear Sampson
WR Terrance Williams
WR Tevin Reese
TE Jordan Najvar
OG Cyril Richardson
OG Cameron Kaufhold
C Ivory Wade

DE Terrance Lloyd
DE Gary Mason, Jr.
LB Ahmad Dixon
LB Rodney Chadwick
CB K.J.Morton
CB Joe Williams
SS Sam Holl
FS Mike Hicks

PK Aaron Jones
P Spencer Roth

OFFENSE:With Griffin now playing his football on Sundays, the Baylor offense is being turned over to senior Nick Florence. At 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, Florence isn't the physical specimen his freakishly-gifted predecessor was, but he has the skill and confidence needed to lead the Bears to another successful campaign, provided of course he gets help from an offensive line that returns three starters, and skill position players that have the ability to break a game wide open every time they touch the ball.

Head coach Art Briles isn't worried about the transition to a new field general, "I have a tremendous amount of confidence in the passion, the energy, the drive, the fearlessness that he [Florence] is going to bring to the table for us, because I know him from inside out and I know how he feels. I know how he thinks, and I think I know how he performs," He continued, "The thing he's gotta do is stay within himself and not get caught up in listening to anybody else or anything else and staying focused in the moment, focused in the situation."

Replacing another record-setter in RB Terrance Ganaway (1,566 yards, 21 TDs) won't be easy either, but Jarred Salubi is expected to raise his level of play considerably as he enters his fifth year on campus. The Waco native is coming off the best game of his college career as he rushed for 101 yards and 2 TDs on only 5 carries in the Bears' Alamo Bowl win. He averaged 5.7 ypc as a junior, but has started only 5 games in his career so it remains to be seen if he can be the workhorse the team desperately needs to take some of the pressure off Florence. Another guy to keep an eye on is Lache Seastrunk, who sat out last year after transferring in from Oregon. Seastrunk you may remember, was at the center of a scandal involving Texas-based recruiter Will Lyles.

Also missing in action this year is Baylor's all-time leading receiver, Kendall Wright (108 receptions, 1,663 yards, 14 TDs in '11), but the Bears have a pair of top-notch pass catchers ready to step up as seniors Terrance Williams and Lanear Sampson combined for 101 grabs, 1,529 yards and 14 TDs last season. Both are on this year's Biletnikoff Award watch list.

DEFENSE:With the offense expected to produce, albeit at not quite the same level as last year's group, the BU defense will need to perform significantly better than it did in 2011 when foes torched the Bears for 488.5 yards and 37.2 points per game. In fact, the 6,350 total yards allowed by the defense set a new school record.

With eight starters back, including the entire secondary, the hope is defensive coordinator Phil Bennett will be able to do a better job of putting his guys in position to make the plays necessary to keep the opposition at bay.

The defensive line features returning starters at both end positions, but the one guy who could make a real name for himself is converted FB Kaeron Johnson at nose guard. At 6-foot-2, 300 pounds, Briles is on record as saying Johnson could develop into one of the more dominant interior linemen in not only the Big 12, but the country as well.

Returning starters Ahmad Dixon (89 tackles, 1 INT) and Rodney Chadwick (68 tackles) anchor what is expected to be one of the quickest and most athletic linebacking corps Baylor has ever had, and the key to their success could hinge on the play of sophomore Bryce Hager in the middle.

Most of the team's top tacklers from last season return, among them safeties Sam Holl and Mike Hicks. The two combined for 218 tackles and 6 INTs in 2011, and will be counted on heavily to help against both forms of attack this time around.

While acknowledging that there is certainly work to be done, Briles is quick to point out that his defense had a lot to do with the team going on a six-game win streak to close out last season.

"Our last six games where we went 6-0 shows you how hard it is to win games at the end of the year. Our defense made critical plays at critical points to help us win the football game."

SPECIAL TEAMS:Kicker Aaron Jones (10-of-17) and punter Spencer Roth (40.5 ypp) are back for another go, but both need to be more consistent. The return game should be fine as Baylor has a number of speedsters ready to assume the job of setting the team up with favorable field position.

OUTLOOK:With Baylor's goal being winning the Big 12 title, there are quite a few folks who feel the loss of so many offensive weapons coupled with a defense that needs to show dramatic improvement, makes that little more than a pipe dream.

The Bears have three winnable games to open the season, as bouts with SMU, Sam Houston State and ULM should allow for the team to begin the post-RG3 era in a positive way. BU opens conference play at West Virginia on Sept. 29, which is the second in a string of 4-of-5 games that the Bears will play on the road. Playing at Texas and Oklahoma this year will be tough, but getting both Kansas State and Oklahoma State at home is a plus.

In the end, Baylor will likely win the requisite games to earn another bowl bid, but anything beyond that is probably asking a bit too much.

By Frank Haynes, Senior College Football Editor

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