Baylor football remains a mystery ahead of Big 12 opener against Kansas

Kansas cornerback Hasan Defense (13) breaks up an end zone pass to Baylor Bears wide receiver Denzel Mims (5) during the second quarter on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019 at Memorial Stadium.

To some extent, it is like another opener for the Kansas football team. It might even be more difficult in terms of preparation.

KU’s coaching staff at least had an idea of what to expect from Coastal Carolina prior to an eventual 38-23 loss in the season opener, which was thanks in large part to the game film from the 2019 matchup in Lawrence.

But that won’t really be an option for the Big 12 opener, as Baylor has a new staff in place after Dave Aranda took over the program in January. He replaced Matt Rhule, who left to become the head coach of the Carolina Panthers.

What adds even more mystery to Aranda’s squad is the fact this weekend will be the first time Baylor takes the field in 2020. So there really isn’t much information out there on this year’s version of the Bears, especially with an offseason that was impacted by a pandemic.

All of that has helped Baylor fly somewhat under-the-radar entering league action, at least compared to most teams coming off an 11-win season that included a trip to the Big 12 title game.

“We’re trailblazing a little bit in not playing a game,” Aranda told local reporters during his weekly press conference. “That is one way to look at it. I hope people have got a lot of film on us after this week.”

It doesn’t mean Kansas will just simply not watch any tape, however. With an extra week to prepare, KU has spent time studying what Baylor’s coaching staff has done at previous stops.

That means watching film on LSU’s run to a national title in 2019 to get a better idea of what Aranda likes to do on the defensive side of the ball. Aranda served as defensive coordinator at LSU over the previous four seasons. New defensive coordinator Ryan Roberts, who directed the defense at Louisiana-Lafayette over the last two years, will probably add some of his touch to that unit as well.

On the other side of the ball, Larry Fedora is Baylor’s offensive coordinator after serving as head coach at North Carolina between 2012-18. Fedora’s teams as both a head coach and play caller have averaged more than 30 points per game 11 different times since 2006.

“We are looking at where people came from,” KU head coach Les Miles said. “We feel comfortable that we are in a position to play this game in terms of strategically.”

Baylor could always reveal something completely new on Saturday, of course, but creating a game plan based on what these coaches did at their previous stops seems like KU’s best plan of attack. It will be fascinating to see how it all plays out this weekend.

In the meantime, though, let’s do our own homework on what the Bears might look like. Based on my research, which included reading a lot of smart people and watching old games on Youtube, here is my best guess at what Baylor will try to do on both sides of the ball under its new staff.

Baylor’s defense

Aranda will bring his 3-4 base defense to Baylor, which had already previously played with three down linemen. The Bears can throw a few different looks at opposing offenses with this base defense, but Aranda will likely have his own unique wrinkles to the defensive scheme.

For starters, expect the three defensive linemen to be lined up differently compared to what Baylor did last year. The Bears often had their defensive ends lined up on the edge of the tackles in a five-tech, while throwing a three-safety look on the back end in a defensive scheme that has become more popular as of late in the Big 12 conference.

LSU’s defense, meanwhile, elected to put the two defensive ends inside the tackles in a 4i-technique. This screenshot from PFF’s 2020 College Football Magazine perfectly illustrates the subtle differences between Baylor’s defensive formation last year compared to what LSU did under Aranda.

photo by: Pro Football Focus

A look at the difference between Baylor’s defense under Matt Rhule and LSU’s defense under Dave Aranda via PFF’s College Football Preview Magazine.

This formation is called “Tite” by Aranda, and it’s been his base look since he switched to a 3-4 scheme. The nose tackle is in a 0-tech, and will fill in either A gap. Both B-gaps are then handled by the two ends.

It is designed to clog up the middle in an attempt to force things horizontally. It is a defensive scheme built to slow down RPO teams, because linebackers won’t be forced into as many run-pass conflicts if they don’t have to step up to fill in the B-gap.

Where things get really interesting is when Aranda uses one of his sub-packages. This package called “Peso” is used against a spread offense. It is essentially Aranda’s version of the Nickel package.

A normal Nickel formation features three linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs. Aranda uses two linemen instead, while employing four linebackers and five defensive backs. The idea is to have a lot of speed out there to combat a spread option, while using that quickness to find different ways to get to the quarterback.

This is how Aranda explained it to The Advocate in 2018:

Peso is playing two down linemen, four linebackers and five DBs. You’re playing an over defense, but you’re playing it from a 3-4 perspective with the two D-linemen over the guards and your outside linebackers being over the tackles and your inside backers being in the core. Out of those six, you can play games with who the four rushers are. We made a lot of hay with that at some (other schools, including) the first year (at LSU in 2016), especially at the bowl (win over Louisville), (we played) a fair amount of it.

Aranda has many more different looks he can throw at Big 12 offenses, but those are some of his core concepts. I’ll be curious to see if Baylor still has a three-safety look on the back end, because that wasn’t a common formation for Aranda at LSU.

Aranda has shown the ability to adapt, and it has worked for him every step of the way so far. Aranda’s defense has ranked in the Top 12 nationally in total yards in five of his six seasons as a defensive coordinator at a Power 5 program.

LSU’s defense was tied for the sixth-best team run defense grade in 2019, according to PFF’s NCAA Premium Stats. The Tigers only allowed 18 points per contest over their final five games of the 2019 season.

Baylor will have to find a way to replace several starters from last year’s squad, but Aranda’s philosophy might just get the most out of this defense. For an even better explanation on this defensive scheme, I highly recommend checking out this video:

Baylor’s offense

Despite a new offensive coordinator, don’t expect much to change for the Bears schematically.

Having senior quarterback Charlie Brewer in place makes it difficult to completely revamp an offense, especially since he has started 30 of the last 31 games for Baylor. Yet it just might be a perfect match between Brewer and his new play caller.

Fedora’s offense at North Carolina leaned on the power run game out of 11 personnel, which is a one back and one tight end grouping. This involved a lot of plays that featuring a pulling lineman, while building run-pass options off that original look. It really put opposing defenses in a lot of difficult situations.

It is not that uncommon from what Baylor has been doing as of late, either. From a rushing standpoint, Baylor has a history of success with the power run game. It helps set up the passing game, particularly with Brewer’s success on RPOs and play-action shots.

Brewer actually has the third-highest PFF grade (86.4) on RPOs since 2018. Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence leads the way in that department with a grade of 90.5. Per PFF, Brewer averaged 10.3 yards per attempt off play action compared to just 7.2 yards per attempt without play action.

It won’t be shocking if Baylor’s offense features plenty of RPOs this season, but it will be interesting to see the added wrinkles to that overall concept.

Final thoughts

This wasn’t supposed to reveal Baylor’s entire playbook, but rather focus on key concepts that might be worth watching on Saturday.

Great coaches are constantly evolving, and they find creative ways to exploit certain mismatches on any given week. The Bears seem to have a good staff in place, and it will be interesting to see how long it takes for players to adjust after an unusual offseason.

In the end, I still think I’d prefer to be in Baylor’s situation this weekend. The element of mystery is probably more advantageous than a team like KU coming off a letdown in the season opener.

Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. Saturday at McLane Stadium.


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