If Tom Herman is number one in a ranking of all 80 bowl coaches from all 40 games, Art Briles of Baylor checks in at number two.
What Briles achieved in the Russell Athletic Bowl against North Carolina doesn’t require a lot of explanation, but it’s worth briefly underscoring just how impressive Baylor’s boss was against an 11-2 North Carolina team whose defense was guided by a Broyles Award finalist, defensive coordinator Gene Chizik.
You knew that Baylor achieved all that it did against North Carolina without its top two quarterbacks, Seth Russell and Jarrett Stidham. You knew that Baylor rolled past the Tar Heels without top running back Shock Linwood and top receiver Corey Coleman. Baylor and Briles demonstrated player-development skills which greatly exceeded what Mark Helfrich has been able to do at Oregon with HIS backup quarterback, Jeff Lockie.
Baylor and Oregon both expect to win conference championships and compete for national titles every year; player development represents one component of coaching in which Briles has separated himself from Helfrich. The Russell Athletic Bowl and the Alamo Bowl offered an illuminating contrast in this regard. A Briles-Helfrich comparison represents one of the more clarifying dimensions of the just-ended bowl season.
So, you know that Baylor beat North Carolina despite being shorthanded; that’s certainly the main story to take away from Bears-Tar Heels. Yet, there’s something to be said for what Briles did in a context beyond the immediate. Baylor certainly adjusted to a worrisome situation with great speed and dexterity, and while that’s a phenomenal feat of coaching prowess, it doesn’t quite capture everything that was great about Baylor’s display a week ago.
This tweet places Baylor’s achievement under Briles in a much fuller context:
Last year: Baylor had bowl-record 603 passing yards vs. Michigan State. Tonight: Baylor had bowl-record 646 rushing yards vs. UNC.
— CoachingSearch.com (@coachingsearch) December 30, 2015
When Baylor threw, threw, and threw some more against Michigan State, starting quarterback Bryce Petty was healthy and on the field. When armed with his best passer, Briles took to the air and produced great results. Only an improbable offensive face-mask penalty deprived Baylor of a victory against the Spartans in the first of two 2015 Cotton Bowls.
At the end of 2015, Briles didn’t have his No. 1 quarterback. He didn’t even have his No. 2 signal caller on the field. Did he want to pass the ball? Possibly. Yet, he was smart enough to know that his best chance of not merely winning, but flourishing on offense, rested with his offensive line and his running game. Sure enough, Baylor was able to top the 600-yard mark on the ground, with quarterback Chris Johnson throwing for a mere 82 yards.
The specific point which has to be underlined in bright red ink is that Baylor didn’t merely reshape its focus in the Russell Athletic Bowl, relative to the first 2015 Cotton Bowl against Sparty. Baylor changed its focus and DOMINATED in the process of doing so.
Plenty of teams and offenses will go from a pass-first emphasis to a run-first emphasis if the matchups demand that they should, or if personnel limitations force their hand. These offenses might enjoy modest levels of success or improvement. Baylor, though, improved spectacularly. Being able to throw for 600-plus yards with a healthy quarterback in one season’s bowl game, and then being able to run for 600-plus yards with a third-string quarterback piloting the offense in the next season’s bowl, represents a remarkable readjustment of identity. Art Briles’s ability to refine his offense in accordance with the needs of a given situation is unmatched in college football.
Briles reminded everyone why Baylor — had it not been savaged by injuries at the skill positions — might have been the Big 12 champion for a third straight season…
… possibly to the extent that it would be playing next Monday for the whole enchilada in Glendale, Arizona.