Some critical consumers of college football have asserted that Baylor’s offensive prowess under crafty coach Art Briles is a result of his system perhaps more than the athletes filling the various roles in the Bears’ point-a-minute machine.
That theory will be put to the test today when Oklahoma invades McLane Stadium in Waco, Texas, in a highly anticipated Big 12 Conference showdown that ultimately could determine one of the entrants in the four-team College Football Playoff.
First-year starting quarterback Seth Russell, surrounded by a veteran cast of field-stretching playmakers and big bodies up front, was rolling along nicely before suffering a broken bone in his neck two weeks ago in Baylor’s 45-27 win at Iowa State. Russell had successful surgery and is expected to recover, but he’s out for the season.
The next man up is true freshman Jarrett Stidham, a coveted recruit out of Stephenville, Texas, who originally committed to Texas Tech before switching to Briles and the Bears in a hotly contested recruiting battle.
In his first significant action of the season last week at Kansas State, Stidham was steady, if not spectacular, completing 23 of 33 passes for 419 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He also scored on a 1-yard run two minutes into the game.
His next task is considerably more daunting, as a veteran Oklahoma defense with national playoff aspirations is waiting. Stidham’s cause will be aided considerably by a cast of home run-hitting wide receivers.
With four regular-season games remaining, Corey Coleman already has 58 catches for 1,178 yards and 20 touchdowns and recently gained some mention in the Heisman Trophy conversation. Speed merchant K.D. Cannon and Jay Lee are other sure-handed pass catchers who would be the No. 1 option at most schools.
Since a head-scratching, midseason stumble against Texas at the Cotton Bowl, the Sooners have raised the ante. Some might argue they have been the best team in college football in the past month.
Still, Baylor has thrived as a home favorite, covering 19 of its past 24 games in the role. Go with Stidham and the Bears and lay the 2½ points.
Seven more plays for today (home team in CAPS):
* RUTGERS (+9) over Nebraska — After a trilogy of close losses, Nebraska finally found itself on the other side of the fence last week when it nudged Michigan State 39-38 on a controversial touchdown pass in the final seconds. Playing for the 11th straight week, the Cornhuskers are in a difficult spot, as they travel to the East Coast to play hapless Rutgers.
Scarlet Knights wide receiver Leonte Carroo, described by coach Kyle Flood as “one of the better players in the country,” is expected to play after missing the past three games with a high ankle sprain. During Carroo’s most recent three-game absence, the Scarlet Knights failed to score an offensive touchdown.
* TEXAS CHRISTIAN (-45) over Kansas — Some well-respected handicappers will caution against playing such gargantuan favorites, but why? TCU plays fast, boasts one of the nation’s highest-scoring offenses and is bound to be in a sour mood after last week’s loss at Oklahoma State. In three previous games getting 34½ or more points this season, the Jayhawks lost all by at least 48 points.
* WEST VIRGINIA (-8½) over Texas — Longhorns coach Charlie Strong’s second act in Austin has not been much different from the first. Brief periods of optimism are overshadowed by historic blowout losses. Aside from a surprising victory over Oklahoma, Texas has demonstrated little progress. The road has been particularly problematic for the Longhorns, who have been outscored 112-10 in games at Notre Dame, TCU and Iowa State.
* Alabama-MISSISSIPPI STATE (Under 52) — Familiarity may breed contempt in personal relationships, but in conference games it can tend to yield lower-scoring games. Especially when you’re talking about Southeastern Conference West division head knockers Alabama and Mississippi State. This game has stayed below the total in eight straight meetings, with an average total of 47. The Crimson Tide defense held Louisiana State tailback Leonard Fournette to 31 yards on 19 carries last week.
* IOWA STATE (+14) over Oklahoma State — The Cowboys are off an incredibly misleading 49-29 victory over TCU in which the Horned Frogs’ Trevone Boykin threw four interceptions. TCU ran 57 more plays than Oklahoma State, led 36-16 in first downs and outgained the Cowboys by more than 200 yards. The four turnover disparity, however, was too much to overcome for the Horned Frogs.
* Georgia Southern (-6) over TROY — Up-and-coming offensive mastermind Neal Brown could be the answer for a Troy program that had become stale in the final years of longtime coach Larry Blakeney. The Trojans have played especially well in their past three games, winning two and taking Sun Belt Conference leader Appalachian State to the wire on the road in the other. Georgia Southern has slipped a couple of notches but is clearly the superior team.
* Minnesota (+10) over IOWA — The Hawkeyes are undefeated and enjoying a resurrection of sorts under coach Kirk Ferentz. At No. 5 in this week’s playoff rankings, Iowa is the most overrated team in college football. Minnesota, which this week gave interim coach Tracy Claeys a three-year contract as the permanent boss, is 10-1 ATS as a double-digit conference underdog since the start of the 2013 season. Iowa is 4-14 ATS as a double-digit conference favorite since 2006.
Last week: 2-3-1 against the spread
— Paul Stone of VegasSportsAuthority.com is providing college football analysis for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.