Matt Rhule's tenure as Baylor's football coach was one of the most impressive in recent history. He took a Bears program on life support following scandal and, in three seasons, coached the team to 11 wins, a Big 12 title game berth and a Sugar Bowl. He earned his shot at coaching the NFL's Carolina Panthers.
To replace him, Baylor went to the defending national champions, hiring LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. Long considered a great defensive mind, Aranda gets the first chance in his career to run his own program. He has some key pieces returning on offense, but inherits a defense needing to replace most of its starters.
The biggest boost Aranda will get on offense is the return of senior quarterback Charlie Brewer. Brewer has played a significant part in Baylor's resurgence. Last season, he threw for 3,161 yards and 21 touchdowns. He's a shade over 2,600 yards away from breaking Heisman winner Robert Griffin III's career passing record, and a decent season should do it.
A couple of things will present hurdles along the way. Brewer won't have receiver Denzel Mims as his primary target. Mims caught 66 passes for 1,020 yards and 12 scores last season. Now he's a New York Jet after getting picked in the second round of this past spring's NFL draft. The Bears' next three top receivers – Tyquan Thornton, R.J. Sneed and Josh Fleeks – all return. Thornton caught 45 passes for 782 yards and five touchdowns.
The other issue is Brewer's offensive line, which was one of the worst in the Football Bowl Subdivision at protecting him. Baylor allowed 38 sacks last season, tied for 116th in the FBS. The Bears do return Connor Galvin, picked by Athlon Magazine as a preseason All-Big 12 second-teamer.
Last season's leading rusher John Lovett (655 yards, five TDs) is back for his senior season. Brewer has shown some talent with his legs as well, rushing for 344 yards and a team-best 11 touchdowns.
Baylor featured the Big 12's best scoring defense, allowing just 19.8 points per game. Yet all but two of last year's starters are gone. Only linebacker Terrel Bernard and corner Raleigh Texada return from that group. Aranda does have the luxury of coaching last season's leading tackler. Bernard earned that honor with 112 stops.
The Bears will need to find their new go-to guy to wreak havoc in the backfield. Defensive end James Lynch, a consensus first-team All-American and 2019 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, was a fourth-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings. Sophomores T.J. Franklin and Gabe Hall are the likely starters at defensive end for this season. They recorded two tackles for a loss between them last season. Lynch racked up 19½ on his own.
Baylor could get some help in the pass rush from Arkansas State graduate transfer William Bradley-King, the likely starter at jack linebacker, a hybrid linebacker/stand-up end position. Bradley-King was a first-team All-Sun Belt pick who recorded 13½ tackles for loss last season.
While the Bears get Texada back to anchor the secondary, they'll be without safety Grayland Arnold, who finished fifth nationally with six interceptions. That was a big part of Baylor's plus-11 turnover margin, the 11th-best in the FBS.
Aranda didn't receive a great welcoming gift for his arrival at Baylor. That “gift” was a truncated spring season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That will make a first season even more difficult, as Aranda and his staff didn't get to use the spring to install their schemes. That likely will make the growing pains of Aranda's first season linger even longer.