Why Baylor is the Most Underrated 2013 Team in the Big 12 Conference

Alex SimsCorrespondent IIIJune 24, 2013

December 27, 2012; San Diego, CA, USA; Baylor Bears head coach Art Briles during the second half against the UCLA Bruins in the Holiday Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium. Baylor won 49-26. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

When head coach Art Briles took over at Baylor in 2008, he did so as the leader of a Bears football program that hadn't been in the Top 25 since 1993, never had a Heisman Trophy winner and carried no identity other than being a Big 12 Conference doormat.

In just five seasons in Waco, Briles has changed all of that. BU has gone to three consecutive bowl games, Robert Griffin III captured the school's first Heisman and the Bears are now a contender in the competitive Big 12.

Going forward, Briles' Bears are poised to continue adding to that list of accolades—and that process could start as early as the 2013 season.

A BCS bowl bid, conference title and even Heisman No. 2 aren't completely out of the picture for 2013 and beyond.

While the Big 12 spotlight is mostly on Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas, Baylor has to be standing in the dark thinking, "What about us?"

Then again, maybe the underdog role is perfect for the boys in Waco.

They were in a similar situation heading into the 2012 season, still in the shadow of Griffin's outstanding 2011 campaign and outside of the minds of many in the race for the conference crown.

Very little was expected of the Bears in 2012 and, after an early season hibernation, it looked like they were going to be pushed back down to the bottom of the Big 12 barrel.

However, to kick off the month of November, BU broke through with its first in-conference victory of the year over Kansas.

Following the wake-up win, Baylor endured what would be its final loss of the season—a 42-34 defeat at Oklahoma.

From then on, the Bears were undoubtedly the hottest team in the Big 12.

Their biggest win of the year came the very next week when they became the only Big 12 team to beat Kansas State, knocking the Wildcats out of the national title picture with a dominant 52-24 triumph. 

Baylor kept rolling from then on, as it knocked off Texas Tech and Oklahoma State before capping the season with a 23-point drubbing of UCLA in the Holiday Bowl.

Despite the strong finish, Baylor certainly has its issues as the 2013 season looms.

BU will have to deal with the departure of quarterback Nick Florence and Biletnikoff Award finalist Terrance Williams, all while trying to repair one of the nation's worst defensive units from last year.

Let's start on defense, where things aren't quite as bad as they seem, though there are plenty of statistics that suggest otherwise—like the one that indicates that BU was the second-worst team (No. 123) the nation in passing and total defense in 2012.

Part of that figure can be attributed to the incredible pace the Bears offense worked at, as they conversely finished No. 2 in the nation in total offense, while ranking No. 112 in time of possession.

In other words, Baylor's offense was playing hot potato every time it had the ball, resulting in its tired defense being burnt time and again.

Fortunately, that defense, which was relatively young and devoid of experience last year, will return essentially all of its most productive players from last year.

Baylor's top four leading tacklers, Bryce Hager, Eddie Lackey, Ahmad Dixon and Sam Holl, will all return along with top corner Joe Williams. Additionally, sack leaders Terrance Lloyd and Chris McAllister will also be back to anchor the defensive line.

With so much experience returning for 2013, the Baylor defense is bound to improve.

On offense, the Bears will have almost as much to look forward to, even despite the departures of Florence and Williams.

Stepping into the lead receiver role will likely be Tevin Reese, BU's No. 2 option from 2012.

Reese compiled 957 receiving yards last year, as he combined with Williams to make the second-best receiving duo in the conference last year, behind only Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin of West Virginia.

Joining Reese for his senior campaign will be a pair of juniors, Levi Norwood and Antwan Goodley. 

Along with these three, Baylor may fill that fourth slot with a trendy preseason pick for Big 12 Newcomer of the Year. Incoming freshman receiver Robbie Rhodes was an Under Armour All-American, the crown jewel of the Baylor recruiting class and is poised to make an immediate impact on the field.

If he lives up to his billing, he could become the Bears' second consecutive offensive newcomer of the year in the conference.

Last season, that honor went to running back Lache Seastrunk, who didn't earn the full-time gig at Baylor until late in the year but still eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing. 

He was very highly recruited out of Temple, Texas and ended up signing with Oregon, only to transfer back to his home state and join Briles' Bears. If he continues that kind of production as the feature back this season, he could find himself in the Heisman conversation.

One of his biggest obstacles to winning the award might be his powerful running mate Glasco Martin, who was very dangerous around the goal line last season, as shown by his 15 touchdowns.

Another obstacle to Seastrunk's Heisman campaign may be Baylor's penchant for passing. 

Even though BU will be breaking in a new quarterback—presumably junior Bryce Petty—don't expect the Bears to abandon the pass.

In replacement of Griffin under center last year, Florence led the entire nation in passing with 4,309 yards.

Similar to last season, Baylor may have to traverse a bit of a learning curve before it hits its full stride. Fortunately, its schedule could accommodate that curve perfectly.

The Bears begin with four home games and face what could be their five toughest opponents in their final five games. 

Additionally, Texas and Oklahoma, which are expected to be the two best teams in the conference, will both travel to Waco.

However, no matter what the preseason polls end up showing, the Big 12 will be as cutthroat as ever.

So with so much uncertainty in 2013, this experienced Baylor team could end up showing that its rise under Briles has only just begun.