The Bears were pretty good last season.
An 11-2 record overall and 8-1 in the Big 12 was pretty impressive when this was a school that was expected to be a middle of the pack team with Oklahoma, Texas and Oklahoma State supposedly better than the Bears, its head coach Art Briles and its all-everything quarterback Bryce Petty.
The end of the season did not happen the way the team had hoped – a loss in the Fiesta Bowl to Central Florida, but there is plenty to build on for the 2014 campaign.
Petty is back and could be a Heisman candidate again if things go according to plan.
This season is different because the offense and defense return four starters each and depth is needed and may be a concern.
With the start of spring ball comes the idea the Baylor Bears will be playing to not only win a conference title but will challenge for a playoff spot and a national title.
Here are the five questions that must be answered in 2014.
Information in this story was obtained from Athlon Sports.
Who will Petty have around him for support?
It might be the biggest question in the conference this season. Art Briles and coordinator Philip Montgomery usually have no trouble finding talent at the skill positions.
And despite losing running backs Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin and receiver Tevin Reese, Baylor shouldn’t miss a beat on offense. The next wave of standout skill players in Waco is ready to emerge, and the receiving corps can lean on Antwan Goodley (71 receptions in 2013), along with Levi Norwood, Clay Fuller and Corey Coleman. Reese’s ability to stretch the field was a huge asset and one of the returning players needs to fill that void.
Which players should make a lasting impression this season?
Incoming freshmen K.D. Cannon and Davion Hall (enrolled early to compete this spring) will have a chance to compete for time. Another name to watch is Robbie Rhodes. He was the No. 2 recruit in the Big 12 by Athlon Sports last season and caught 10 passes for 157 yards in 10 games.
Rhodes could be an even bigger factor in the offense in 2014. At running back, Briles and Montgomery already have a potential star in Shock Linwood. But who will share carries with Linwood? Will it be sophomore Devin Chafin? Redshirt freshmen Johnny Jefferson and early enrollee Terence Williams will push Chafin for the No. 2 role.
What happens on the offensive line?
This is a major concern for Briles. The losses on the offensive line are more of a concern for Briles. Guard Cyril Richardson was one of the nation’s top linemen and was the Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year last season.
Center Stefan Huber and tackle Kelvin Palmer also depart. The good news is there are pieces to work with, and Baylor will welcome left tackle Spencer Drango back in the lineup after he missed the final four games due to back surgery. Drango earned first-team All-Big 12 honors in 2013 and could be in the mix for All-America honors in 2014.
Since he is still rehabbing from the surgery, Drango won’t participate in spring practice, but all signs point to a return to full strength by the fall. Center will be a contested spot this spring, and Kyle Fuller (listed as the backup last season) will get first shot at replacing Huber.
And on defense?
Baylor finished ninth or worse in the Big 12 in yards allowed from 2009-12. Last year, this unit emerged as a strength, holding opponents to just 4.8 yards per play. The Bears also limited Big 12 opponents to 25.7 points per game and forced 29 turnovers.
This spring is crucial to building off that momentum, especially with seven new starters stepping into the lineup. There are significant losses at each level, starting up front with the departure of end Chris McAllister, at linebacker with Eddie Lackey, and in the secondary with safety Ahmad Dixon and cornerbacks Demetri Goodson and K.J. Morton.
While there will be some new faces dotting the depth chart, improved recruiting has bolstered the talent available to coordinator Phil Bennett. Penn State transfer Shawn Oakman was an honorable mention All-Big 12 selection last year and could be in for a breakout performance in 2014.
How will this team finish?
Nine wins. With Texas in transition and Oklahoma State losing a chunk of talent, the Big 12 appears to be a two-team race between Oklahoma and Baylor. The Bears defeated the Sooners last season, but this year’s matchup is in Norman.
Briles has this program trending in the right direction, and even if this team falls short of winning the conference title, an appearance in one of college football’s premier bowl games is a strong possibility.