By Shehan Jeyarajah
After a tough loss on New Year’s Day in the Fiesta Bowl, it can become easy to forget the significance of Baylor football’s season.
Behind one of the best offenses in NCAA history, Baylor fought its way to a Big 12 title, a school-record 11 wins and its first appearance in a BCS bowl game.
The Bears came out of the gate this season on an absolute tear. Baylor scored 69 or more points in each of its first four games this season and outscored opponents 282-65 in that span. There was a small scare in the first road game against Kansas State, but Baylor righted the ship with a massive 71-7 win against Iowa State in Waco and a sound 59-14 victory against Kansas.
Baylor went into a matchup of top 10 programs hosting No. 10 Oklahoma, where the Bears turned heads by soundly defeating the Sooners 41-12. In the game, senior wide receiver Tevin Reese, senior running back Glasco Martin and junior running back Lache Seastrunk were all injured.
Baylor headed to Arlington without the offensive trio, where they lit up Texas Tech 63-34 behind huge days from freshman running back Shock Linwood and junior receiver Levi Norwood. At that point, Baylor was ranked fourth in the BCS and third in the Associated Press poll.
With the eyes of the nation upon them, Baylor went into Stillwater to play No. 10 Oklahoma State, a matchup that was featured on ESPN’s College Gameday. The Bears were embarrassed 49-17, effectively ending their hopes of playing in a national title game.
Despite the loss, Baylor was able to beat TCU the next week. Oklahoma State lost to Oklahoma in surprising fashion, which set up the Dec. 7 game against the Texas Longhorns as the de-facto Big 12 championship game. Baylor handily defeated Case McCoy and the Longhorns to win its first Big 12 Championship in the final game at Floyd Casey Stadium.
The Bears traveled to Glendale, Ariz., to play in the Tostitos BCS Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day. Despite coming in as heavy favorites, Baylor was unable to get consistent stops on the defensive end. The Bears finished the season with a disappointing 52-42 loss to the UCF Knights.
Baylor finished the 2013 season with a record of 11-2, a new school record for wins. This was also the first BCS appearance for Baylor football and first conference championship in the Big 12 era.
There had been rumors circulating all season whether head coach Art Briles would leave Baylor to coach at the University of Texas. All that came to rest on Jan. 3 with Briles releasing a statement, finally putting all rumors to rest.
“I have no desire to pursue other coaching positions,” Briles said in the statement. “I am both humbled and honored to be the head coach at Baylor University. I look forward to leading the Bears onto the field next fall at McLane Stadium and defending our Big 12 Championship.”
Many thought that Baylor could be special heading into the season, but few thought the Bears would finish their season in a BCS bowl. Baylor to broke the all-time yardage record for 13 games. Much of that can be attributed to the surprise play of junior quarterback Bryce Petty.
After Robert Griffin III and Nick Florence, Petty became the third straight Baylor starting quarterback to already have a Baylor diploma. Heading into the season, Briles said a reasonable expectation for Bryce Petty would be to break every Baylor record.
Petty did his best to do just that. In his first season at the helm, Petty threw for 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns while only throwing three picks on the season.
Petty finished the season as the second most efficient quarterback in college football behind only Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston.
Heading into next season, Baylor’s offense will return six out of 11 starters, including Petty. Seastrunk opted to enter the 2014 NFL Draft, but Linwood showed major flashes in Seastrunk’s absence.
Despite only starting at running back in two games, Linwood finished the season sixth in the Big 12 in rushing yards.
Despite losing Reese to graduation, Baylor may be stronger at the wide receiver position than ever before.
The Bears will return five receivers who played significant minutes. Freshman wide receiver Robbie Rhodes, a four-star recruit, should return from injury and take another step towards contributing. Four-star high school recruits Davion Hall and K.D Cannon could have a chance to contribute as well.
With the added talent and experience at wide receiver to go along with another year from Petty, Baylor has a chance to be even better on offense than it was in the record-breaking 2013 season.
The big question marks will come on defense, where Baylor graduates seven starters, one of which is All-American safety Ahmad Dixon.
Despite the graduations, the Bears will return nine players who have played major minutes, including All-Big 12 junior linebacker Bryce Hager.
The strongest area for Baylor will be on the defensive line. The Bears return seven defensive linemen who played key minutes in 2013.
Former starter Javonte Magee is also expected to return for Baylor after redshirting last season. Sophomore defensive end Sam Ukwuachu will play next season after sitting out the season as a transfer from Boise State.
If Baylor can receive meaningful contributions from inexperienced underclassmen on the defensive side of the ball, the Bears can set themselves up to be one of the best teams in football once against next season and to compete for the Big 12 Championship.
Baylor will open its new riverfront stadium on Aug. 31 against in-state rival SMU.
With matchups against Northwestern State, at Buffalo and Iowa State to follow, Baylor likely won’t face its first test until they play against Texas in Austin on Oct. 4.