December 07, 2016
Here's a scenario:
Matt Rhule is sitting in the living room of an 18-year-old, four-star recruit from Billy Ryan High School in Denton, Texas.
The New York City native is trying to convince this young man, and his family, to join him at a Baylor football program that is still trying to emerge from a sexual assault scandal that led to the ouster of its head coach, university president and athletic director. Amid the turmoil, the Bears ended this season on a six-game losing streak, finishing with their worst record in the last five years.
After hearing the pitch, that same recruit will be visited by Gary Patterson, Tom Herman, Bob Stoops, Mike Gundy, and Kevin Sumlin. If he chooses Baylor, he won't be playing for TCU, Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, or Texas A&M.
Navigating the cut-throat Texas recruiting scene will be one of the biggest challenges facing Rhule, but he's no stranger to adversity.
This is, after all, a coach who took Temple from two wins to ten wins, won a conference championship, and earned back-to-back bowl bids for the first time in the program's history. Three of his players made it to the NFL. We even talked about building a football stadium in North Philadelphia and college football gained a bit of traction in a city dominated by the Eagles.
Maybe Rhule likes a challenge, and maybe that's why he went to Baylor. The appointment doesn't make any sense stylistically, but I can understand why it happened.
For Rhule, it's a chance to coach a power-five school. The Bears are only two years removed from an 11-1 season that featured a playoff snub and consolation Cotton Bowl appearance.
For Baylor, this is how you restore credibility to a battered program. Ask anyone who has been around Rhule, and they'll tell you that he's one hell of a person. I met him twice and was totally impressed with his demeanor and attitude. I have no doubt that he'll fix the off-field issues in Waco.
The problem, for me, aside from recruiting, is what happens on the field.
The Big 12 is not a great fit for a coach who traditionally leans on a stout defense and a grind-it-out offense.
Temple's defense was absolutely phenomenal down the stretch, giving up just 13 points to Cincinnati, 10 points to East Carolina, and holding Navy to 10 in the AAC championship game. The Owls also shut out Connecticut and Tulane on the road in consecutive weeks.
It was the same story in 2015 when Temple posted six wins in which it held opposing teams to under 15 points.
You can't replicate that against high-powered Big 12 offenses.
For comparison, Baylor conceded 35, 62, 45, 42, 54, and 24 points in its final six games. The Bears gave up 30 rushing touchdowns, finishing 9th out of 10 conference teams. They also finished in the bottom half of the league in scoring defense, rushing defense, red zone defense, and 3rd and 4th down conversion rate. The only defensive bright spot was the secondary, which allowed a league-low 16 touchdowns through the air.
Rhule will need time to fix the Baylor defense.
He can, however, lean on the Bears' strong running game.
Baylor led the Big 12 with 3,003 rushing yards. Sophomore running back Terence Williams had 945 yards on 160 carries and found the end zone 11 times. The program's all-time leading rusher, Shock Linwood, also added 751 yards on the ground despite a brief November suspension for "attitude issues".
Rhule's Temple teams have, likewise, featured sturdy running games. Jahad Thomas and Ryquell Armstead combined for 1,836 yards and 27 touchdowns this season. Thomas ran for 1,262 yards and 17 scores just a year ago.
But even if Rhule has a starting point here, we're talking about the square peg and round hole in terms of style.
There's only one team in the Big 12 that plays like Temple, and that's Kansas State. Bill Snyder's Wildcats don't deploy the wide open, spread-style offenses that you see at Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, and TCU. They're a decent team that can go 8-4 or 9-3, but they probably aren't going to win the conference.
What you can count on from Kansas State is a commitment to defense and discipline. K-State lead the conference in rushing defense, passing defense, time of possession, and turnover margin. They win the field position battle and perennially top the league in most special teams categories.
When other teams are spraying the ball all over the field, the Wildcats are winning in the other two phases of the game.
The other team that strays a bit from the Big 12 pack is former Big East member West Virginia, which schemes specifically for Big 12 offenses. The Mountaineers play a 3-3-5 defense, which adds a spur safety to the backfield in lieu of another body at the line of scrimmage. Dana Holgorsen's team finished 10-2, holding Texas Tech to 17 points in Lubbock and keeping four other conference foes to 20 or fewer points. It just couldn't match the Oklahoma teams when it really mattered.
Rhule's Temple squads were more like Kansas State and West Virginia, and less like Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. He can either continue with Baylor's identity as a high-powered offensive team or attempt to mold the Bears into something completely different.
Maybe he can compete in the Big 12, but there's a huge mountain to climb. There will be much more scrutiny and much more pressure to compete and Baylor might not be out of the woods just yet when it comes to possible sanctions for the sexual assault scandal. The loss of scholarships or bowl games won't do anything to help recruiting or image, though it might actually lower expectations for a new head coach who would have to wade through that mess.
This is not an easy job, but Rhule has been here before. If he can put Temple on the map, then he can find success at Baylor.