The Falcons will make their sixth appearance at the Armed Forces Bowl in TCU’s Amon Carter Stadium on Thursday, Dec 22 at 6:30 PM CST. Their opponent will be the Baylor Bears, who finished the season at 4-5 in the Big 12 Conference and 6-6 overall.
The Bears record is deceiving, because the Big 12 Conference was very strong this year. Three members finished the season ranked in the nation’s top 20 teams; Texas finished in 20th, Kansas State finished in 9th, and TCU finished 3rd and will appear in the CFP.
Baylor itself was ranked 10th in FBS at the start of the season after having finished 5th after last season.
Scouting the Bears
The Bears run a very balanced offensive attack under head coach Dave Aranda. They averaged 235 yards per game passing and 194 yards per game rushing, and they like to grind out some long drives. They averaged 32 1⁄2 minutes of time of possession, so total possessions should be low for each team in this match.
The passing attack is under the leadership of QB Blake Shapen, a redshirt sophomore in his first season as the starter. This year he has completed 64% of his passes for 2602 yards and 16 TDs with 10 interceptions. He is mainly a pocket passer, with an occasional bootleg to get some open space for passing. In the film I watched, I didn’t see much of a tendency to tuck the ball and run.
Six receivers have more than 20 receptions; the most dangerous receiver for big plays is Monaray Baldwin, who has 33 reception for 565 yards and 4 TDs. All of the running backs are used as receivers and usually have about 4 receptions each game.
Freshman Richard Reece is the primary running back, and was named offensive freshman of the year in the Big 12. He carried the ball 190 times for 962 yards and 14 TDs. Craig “Squirrel” Williams also sees a lot of carries and averages 5.7 yards per carry.
Defensively, Baylor is somewhat of a mixed bag. The Bears are 44th in FBS in rushing yards allowed at 137.6 yards. However, in other measures of rush defense that measure success, such as 3rd/4th down conversions allowed, stuff rate (stopping runs behind the line), and opportunity rate (allowing runs of four or more yards), the Bears are In the lower half of FBS. That doesn’t mean they don’t have talent on the D line though. Anchoring the line is NG Siaki Ika. Ika weighs in at an impressive 6”4”, 350 pounds, and was named by Phil Steele to his All American team and by the AP to the Big 12’s first team All Conference team.
Safety Al Walcott leads the Bears in tackles with 81 and TFLs with 10. He also forced 3 fumbles. The Falcons can expect to find him lining up in the box often.
There are two factors with the defense that could play to the Falcon’s advantage. Coach Aranda dismissed his defensive coordinator and safeties coach at the end of the season and will serve as head coach and defensive coordinator for the bowl game.
In addition on defense, Baylor will be playing without starting safety Devin Neal, who filed for the transfer portal. Also filing for the portal is backup quarterback Kyron Drones.
On coaching against an option team Aranda said, “For our players, we have to inspire them to the point where they can execute the mundane, play after play after play after play. Because it just takes one guy out of a gap, and that thing hits.” He also said, “we’ve got friends that coach at Army and coach at Navy. It’s been a lot of telephone calls and FaceTimes, kind of getting back in the mode.” More reason to dislike Army and Navy.
Analysis and Prediction
Many of you are familiar with the Falcon’s recent four game winning streak against Power 5 opponents. In that stretch, the Falcon’s have scored an average of 33.2 points per game, which is about what they average against G5 opponents. Even before this last stretch, the Falcons have been pretty successful offensively against P5 teams. Since 2010, they have averaged 288 rushing yards per game against the P5. Those games included matches against Oklahoma, Notre Dame twice, Michigan twice, Michigan State, and California. When they’ve lost, it was often because the defense couldn’t stop the passing game of the opponent, as in the 2015 loss to California, when Jared Goff threw for 467 yards and 6 TDs.
Given Baylor’s mediocre run defense this year and unfamiliarity with the flexbone rushing attack, Air Force should be able to move the ball effectively enough to do some damage. NG Ika might make the fullback dive tougher than normal, and OC Thiessen will have to adjust for that. Still, Haaziq Daniels will have to come up with some effective throws downfield, much as he did last year against Louisville.
Defensively, the Falcons have been on a roll at the end of the year. The challenge will be to keep it up against a more athletic team. Watch early for how well the Falcons tie up the running game of the Bears. If they can put the Baylor offense in less advantageous positions on third down, the passing game becomes more difficult. The Falcon’s losses against Wyoming and Utah State featured an opposing quarterback who threw effectively against the defense. They were able to do so because they had effective rushing attacks. Each averaged over 5.1 yards per carry. The only other opponent who was able to do that was Nevada, who got the majority of their yards during garbage time.
Draft Kings currently has the line at Baylor -4.5. The line opened at -6.5, so the betting has been favoring the Falcons to cover. I do think that the Falcons will be much more motivated to prove themselves than the Bears will be. The Bear’s fans weren’t too happy to be playing a G5 team in rival TCU’s stadium. I think the Falcons can cover the spread, and I’ll go so far as to predict a Falcon victory by 24-20. With the over/under at 44, a bet there would be a push.