Today at No. 41: Baylor
Coach: Matt Rhule (0-0, entering first season; 28-23 overall)
2016 record: 7-6, 3-6 in the Big 12 Conference, eighth in the league
Look back: Former Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe stepped in as interim coach in 2016 as the program coped with the fallout from a sexual assault scandal that rocked the school. A combination of injuries, inconsistent play and constant questions about the stability of the program led the Bears to go from three consecutive double-digit win seasons to seven wins — the program’s lowest total since 2010.
Offensive starters returning: 7
Offensive starters lost: 4
Defensive starters returning: 6
Defensive starters lost: 5
Key losses: QB Seth Russell, WR KD Cannon, OL Kyle Fuller, LB Aiavion Edwards, LB Patrick Levels, CB Ryan Reid, DB Orion Stewart
Top returnees: WR Chris Platt, OL Ishmael Wilson, OL Blake Blackmar, OL Patrick Lawrence, LB Taylor Young, DE K.J. Smith
Strengths: The offense underwent a tremendous transformation in the offseason, with Matt Rhule incorporating concepts from the pro-style system he used at Temple along with versions of a spread offense. Zach Smith appears locked in as the team’s quarterback after starting the final four games of last season, but he’ll be pushed for the job by Anu Soloman, a dual-threat transfer from Arizona. Smith features a big arm but needs to limit his mistakes after turning the ball over nine times in those final four games.
Baylor has featured a 1,000-yard rusher during each of the past seven seasons, including last season when Terrance Williams rushed for a career-high 1,048 yards and 11 touchdowns. Williams has the size and speed of a next-level running back and he’ll share time in the backfield with sophomore JaMycal Hasty.
Weaknesses: While the offense looks to reinvent itself, the defense must work to identify playmakers — and rather quickly. Senior K.J. Smith earned All-Big 12 honors last season after leading the team in sacks (7) and quarterback hurries (7). He’ll anchor the defensive front alongside junior Ira Lewis (3 sacks) as the unit makes the transition under new defensive coordinator Phil Snow.
LB Taylor Young is the team’s top returning tackler (93 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss) and provides leadership for the group in the middle.
Depth is a big concern for Rhule and his staff, especially on the offensive line. The unit allowed 26 sacks in 2016, nearly double the amount from the previous season.
Outlook: Rhule is facing an uphill battle as he looks to change the image and culture of the damaged program. Setting the right tone is more important, in some ways, than wins or losses.
On the field, the team features enough talent to make another run at a bowl berth, but contending for a conference championship appears to be out of the question.