Kansas State Opponent Breakdown Week 2: Baylor

Up this week is Baylor, under new head coach Matt Rhule. They’re coming off a depressing 2016 in which they started 6-0 but then proceeded to lose six consecutive games as the collective wheels fell off before a surprise performance in the Cactus Bowl. The Cats handled the Bears last season in Waco on the backs of Alex Barnes and Jesse Ertz, but this game looks like it could be vastly different on paper.

Offense

Rhule’s offensive (and defensive) schemes run in stark contrast to those of former HC Art Briles. Whereas Briles preferred a wide-open run and gun hybrid style, Rhule’s offenses tend be based in the power running game, resulting in long, plodding drives that chew up clock and maintain control of the game. However, they haven’t been very efficient (they finished 2016 ranked 92nd nationally in Success Rt+). I have my doubts that this style - without at least a few tweaks - is going to find sustained success in this league (which may sound strange since Bill Snyder is considered the king of this strategy – the key difference between he and Rhule is in both efficiency and personnel utilization) for two primary reasons: 1) He has no depth (due to transfers, dismissals, etc.) and can’t remedy that for at least a couple more seasons while the personnel that’s left doesn’t appear particularly capable of employing his preferred sets and 2) he’s now located in the recruiting hotbed known as Texas, where the spread offense is gospel in high schools across the state, thus making it difficult to find talented players for his current system. His offenses at Temple also had trouble scoring, which isn’t going to cut it in the Big XII – even with a formidable defense.

There are scattered reasons for hope. QB Zach Smith (assuming he holds off Arizona transfer Anu Solomon) is back after a promising - yet very frustrating – freshman year (59.2% completion, 1526 yards, 13 TDs, 139.3 passer rating). He was interception-prone for most of the season but looked terrific in their bowl win against Boise State. He’ll have lead returning rusher Terence Williams (1048 yards, 5.7 YPC, 11 TDs) in the backfield with him. The Bears also return Blake Lynch and Pooh Stricklin on the outside (the pair caught a total of 47 passes but averaged a combined 13 YPC). Three starting linemen are back, though LT Dom Desouza and seasoned C Kyle Fuller are both gone.

I’m not high on the Wildcat defense this season, but I don’t mind this matchup for them early on.

Advantage: KSU

Defense

This side of the ball is Rhule’s bread and butter. In his last three seasons at Temple, his defenses averaged a national ranking of 17th in S&P+ (including regularly finding themselves in the top 10 of Success Rate and Front 7 Havoc) and 22nd in DFEI.They were usually built on toughness and the backs of underrated (non-Texan) recruits. There do appear to be some pieces that fit that bill on the roster. They return their entire line and four primary LBs and DBs each. Davion Hall, Chance Waz, and Grayland Arnold are also names to watch. It’ll be intriguing to watch what kind of defense Rhule (and D-coordinator Phil Snow) mold around these guys.

This group could be pretty fierce by year’s end (if they don’t run out of gas from remaining on the field constantly).

Advantage: Push

Special Teams

Briles’ squads nearly always had a pathetic reputation and were much of the same in 2016 (110th in S&P+). This element could loom large as the season progresses. Rhule has a lot of work to do here.

Advantage: KSU

Keys

- Get first downs. Rhule has made a living terrorizing opposing offenses. It’s paramount the Cats string together long drives and get points when available.

- Pressure Smith. He looked good in the Bears’ bowl game, but he threw a ton of picks last season. Forcing him to make quick decisions and bad throws is ideal.

- Keep the ball on Baylor's side of the field. Their offense is going to have trouble scoring and their special teams coverage has been suspect at best. Need to take advantage of that.

Prediction: Another close outcome, but a little more breathing room this time. DJ Reed makes a couple of big plays in the passing game and Ertz/Barnes each run for a pair of TDs. 28-20 Cats.

Cumulative Record: 4-0 (1-0). Next stop, Austin.

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