The Baylor Bears are ranked No.10 in the Associated Press Preseason Top 25 and are coming off arguably their most successful football season in school history with a program-best No.5 final AP ranking and 12-win season.
Last year represented a huge turnaround for coach Dave Aranda, who went 2-7 in his first season at Baylor before putting together last year’s successful run.
Now, as his third year in charge of the Bears is set to begin Saturday night in Waco against Albany, Aranda said he wants the team to develop a new identity in light of the losses of several key players from last season’s team.
Aranda and his coaching staff have been preaching competitiveness, maturity, and energy in the lead-up to the season opener.
“There’s a jazz musician who said, ‘Jazz is simple, but simple ain’t easy.’ It would be great to really be good at the ‘simple ain’t easy’ part,” Aranda said. “I think there’s a fair amount of teams that maybe struggle with that part. For us to really make an impact in that area would be ideal.”
Baylor is the overwhelming favorite against Albany, a Division II team from New York that was 2-9 last season. Still, the Bears began the previous season having to grind out a 29-20 victory on the road against a lower-level team in Texas State that went on to have a losing record.
Aside from a very experienced offensive line, there are a lot of changes on the offense. Top receiver Tyquan Thornton and do-everything offensive weapon Trestan Ebner were NFL draft picks, and leading rusher Abram Smith played his final college season.
Junior Taye McWilliams will be the Bears’ new starting running back. As a sophomore, he played in three games, carrying the ball 17 times for 181 yards and two touchdowns. At 6’1″ and 213 pounds, McWilliams is difficult to bring down.
Blake Shapen is the new top quarterback after beating out the incumbent starter and since-departed Gerry Bohanon. Shapen appeared in six games last season, starting two in relief of Bohanon.
Shapen’s most impressive performance was in the Big 12 championship game win over Oklahoma State. Shapen was named the game’s MVP, throwing for three touchdowns with no interceptions, and an 82% completion percentage, including an impressive streak of 17 consecutive completions.
A redshirt sophomore, Shapen has 596 career yards, five career touchdowns, and zero career interceptions.
Led by preseason AP All-American left tackle Connor Galvin, the Bears’ strength on offense will be with their experienced line.
Perhaps the team’s most NFL-ready player, Galvin is the reigning Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year. Jacob Gall, who spent four years at Buffalo playing guard, transferred to Baylor last season and became the starting center, earning All Big-12 Honorable Mention honors.
Grant Miller has started 14 games for the Bears at right guard since transferring from Vanderbilt. At right tackle, sixth-year senior Khalil Keith has played almost every game since 2019.
The Bears’ four returning offensive line starters have 171 career games played between them. Only Wake Forest has more experience, with 172 games played among its returning offensive line starters.
“We knew what the core was going to be, so I think we’ve been with each other a lot during the offseason and especially during camp,” Gall said.
Defensively, the Bears will have to make up for the losses of NFL draft picks; safeties Jalen Pitre and JT Woods and linebacker Terrel Bernard.
The team’s strength on defense will be on the line as all three starters from their front are returning. The group is led by second-team AP preseason All-America nose tackle Siaki Ika and sixth-year senior Cole Maxwell, and junior Gabe Hall.
Baylor enters 2022 on a five-game winning streak, which was capped by their win over Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl. It is the second longest win streak in Division I football, trailing only a six-game winning streak by preseason No.4 Clemson.
The Bears were 7-0 last season at McLane Stadium, their home stadium on the banks of the Brazos River. They will look to extend their home dominance and win streak when they kick off against Albany on Saturday at 6 p.m. CT. The game will be broadcast on ESPN+.