By Shehan Jeyarajah
Baylor football was hardly even on the radar at the beginning of last season. The preseason Associated Press poll in 2013 had Baylor on the outside looking in, and the preseason Big 12 poll picked the Bears to finish fifth, behind Texas, TCU and both Oklahoma teams.
What a difference a year and an improbable Big 12 championship makes.
Baylor is ranked in the top 10 of both the Amway Coaches’ Poll and the Associated Press poll for the first time since 1957. Its uniforms were named best in the country by a fan poll by the Sporting News. And to cap things off, Baylor will open the $260 million McLane Stadium on the banks of the Brazos in an intra-state matchup with SMU on Aug. 31.
To put it simply, Baylor football is one of the hottest programs in the country.
“There’s an excitement around this program,” senior quarterback Bryce Petty said. “We’re not here to defend anything; we’re here to attack it. There’s a new belt that’s out there, and we’re going to get it.”
There have been many programs where the stars aligned and led to a conference championship; this season will be the stage where Baylor will either prove itself as a flash in the pan, or establish itself as a legitimate national power.
If Baylor wants to improve on its historic success from 2013, the onus will fall largely on Petty. The sixth-year senior threw for 4,200 yards and accounted for 46 all-purpose touchdowns in his first year starting. Despite the video-game-numbers, Petty just missed being a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
“Personally and professionally, I’m a little upset about the way it all transpired last year,” Baylor coach Art Briles said. “I certainly felt like he should have been in New York without question. I mean, you’re a first-year starter, you win 11 football games, win the Big 12 Championship for the first time in school history, throw 4,200 yards, 32 TDs, three picks, and you sit at home in December?”
Petty will make his case to win Baylor’s second Heisman in four years, and will have every opportunity to do so with the talent Baylor’s offense has to offer. The Bears lost only two major receivers from last year’s team. They return All-American Antwan Goodley, along with other major contributors at both inside and wide receiver.
Baylor also added the strongest wide receiver recruiting class in college football, which featured four ESPN 300 players. With early injuries to senior inside receiver Clay Fuller and sophomore inside receiver Corey Coleman, incoming freshmen KD Cannon and Davion Hall have been gifted an opportunity to get on the field earlier than many expected. All reports say they have run with the opportunity.
Last year’s 1000-yard rusher Lache Seastrunk now plays for the Washington Redskins, but the Bears are in good hands. Sophomore running back Shock Linwood was third-string last season, but finished seventh in the Big 12 with 881 rushing yards; that was good enough for second among returning rushers.
Linwood was named preseason All-Big 12, and he will have plenty of help in the backfield. Sophomore running back Devin Chafin and redshirt freshman Johnny Jefferson are absolute physical freaks.
Chafin looks like a classic power-back at 6-foot, 225-pounds, 18 repetitions on the bench press and 570-pound squat. However he timed at a blazing 4.43 40-yard dash in camp and showed off a 37-inch vertical.
Jefferson is also over 200 pounds, but ran a team-best 4.41 40, and exploded for a 44.6-inch vertical leap. For comparison’s sake, the highest measured vertical at the NBA Draft Combine was only 43.5 inches by Oklahoma State guard Markel Brown.
Baylor graduated two full-time starters in center Stefan Huber and Outland Trophy finalist Cyril Richardson at left guard, but also boasts a fully healthy tackle lineup. Junior left tackle Spencer Drango ruptured a disk in his back against Texas Tech and missed the end of the season. He is fully healthy this season. Right tackle senior Troy Baker has also fully recovered from an ACL tear over a year ago. The line should rank up with the best lines in the conference.
Questions on Defense
The Bears had a surprisingly good defense in 2013, and finished ranked in the top 30 of total defense. However, Baylor returns only four full-time starters from last season on defense.
“I don’t think we’re in the ‘prove everything wrong’ mode anymore,” Bennett said. “I think we did that last season. However it’s a proving business; you’ve got to prove you belong among the elite. For us to win championships, you have to play championship defense.”
That defense will start at the line of scrimmage. Baylor graduated its starting defensive ends, but junior Shawn Oakman and sophomore Jamal Palmer were major contributors off the bench.
“Our depth on the line is great,” defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said. “I think we can play nine-deep on the defensive line.”
That nine would include defensive ends Oakman, Palmer, Boise State transfer Sam Ukwuachu and sophomore Javonte Magee, along with defensive tackles sophomore Andrew Billings, junior Suleiman Masumbuko, junior Beau Blackshear, junior Trevor Clemens-Valdez and sophomore Byron Bonds. All nine players have major game experience.
There is legitimate concern at the linebacker positions. When senior middle linebacker Bryce Hager went down, Bennett avoided playing sophomore Aiavion Edwards. Well now Edwards is slated to start at weakside linebacker to replace Baylor great Eddie Lackey.
Senior Collin Brence started his career as a walk-on, but is now projected to start for Baylor at nickelback. Brence has played in multiple games for Baylor, but exclusively as a special teams player. Coaches have spoken highly of him, but Brence’s skills in the important “Bear” position are unknown.
Hager is a known commodity; as long as he is healthy, he will be one of the best linebackers in the conference, especially at stopping the run.
The secondary is the least experienced unit on the field. Cover safety Terrell Burt is the only player who has started significant time in the secondary, and the Bears have to break in two new starting cornerbacks in sophomores Xavien Howard and Terrence Singleton.
However even though the cornerback duo, along with deep safety Orion Stewart, are inexperienced, Briles believes this defensive backs group is talented.
“We lost a lot of good football players without question, but we got a lot of guys back that we have a lot of confidence in,” Briles said. “It’s like Petty coming in last year. Only one way to get experience; that’s to get on the field and play.”
The performance of the defense will make or break Baylor’s season.
The Bears play a weak non-conference slate in 2014, and should win handily against SMU, Buffalo and Northwestern State, but things get interesting after that.
Baylor starts off with a trip to Ames, Iowa to face Iowa State. The Cyclones were massacred 71-7 when they played Baylor last season, but they are a different team at Jack Trice Stadium. In 2012, ISU quarterback Steele Jantz played the game of his life and led the Cyclones to a dominant 35-21 win. This could easily be a trap game.
Baylor then travels to Austin to take on historical rival Texas. The Longhorns are at the dawn of the Charlie Strong era, but they possess all the talent to compete with any team in the nation, including Baylor.
A week later, Baylor comes home for the first time in over a month to play perennial rival TCU. TCU coach Gary Patterson and the Horned Frogs plain do not like Baylor, and their play says it all. Baylor has lost exactly one home game over the last three seasons; it was a 49-21 bloodbath against TCU in 2012. Even though Baylor is 2-1 over the last three seasons against TCU, its wins have only been by a combined five points.
Baylor then travels to West Virginia. The Mountaineers have historically been a strong home team, but lack the talent to really keep up with a team like Baylor. The Bears then return team to play Kansas, a team that is arguably the worst team in college football.
All this leads up to the de facto Big 12 championship game against Oklahoma in Norman on Nov. 8. OU has dominated the preseason polls after a strong showing in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama. Quarterback Trevor Knight played the game of his life in the win. Baylor has never won in Norman, but this would certainly be the year to do it.
If there is one game on the schedule we know Baylor will be ready for, it is Nov. 22 against Oklahoma State. The Bears’ national championship hopes were destroyed on a cold night in Stillwater last year, but Baylor has OSU at home this season. Petty and company will play with revenge on the mind. Oklahoma State lost virtually everyone, so Baylor should be able to easily accomplish its goal.
From there, Baylor plays Texas Tech at the Texas Farms Bureau Insurance Shootout at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. The Bears have historically played close games against Texas Tech, but have won convincingly. Red Raider coach Kliff Kingsbury will have his team ready to take its best shot against Baylor, especially since linebacker Sam Eguavoen expressed his displeasure with the Baylor program at Big 12 media day.
“I’m looking forward to shutting up Baylor,” Eguavoen said. “We were up on them last year and we just let them slip through the cracks.”
The Bears will close the season against an excellent Kansas State team. Bill Snyder’s team gave Baylor one of its toughest tests in Manhattan last season, and this game could easily have conference title implications. The Bears will have to be their best to finish the season strong.
For all the progress they made in the national eye by qualifying for a BCS game, the Bears undid much of its goodwill by getting stomped 52-42 in the Fiesta Bowl by the American Athletic Conference champion Central Florida.
To really establish itself as a national power, the Bears cannot have a repeat of the Fiesta Bowl with the eyes of the nation on them.
Baylor took strides in 2013 toward being an elite college football team. Getting near the top is hard; getting to the top is even harder.
This is the first year of the College Football Playoff. Only four teams will make the playoff, which means that one of the Power Five conferences will get left out. For Baylor to get into the playoff, it will likely have to go through the conference unscathed.
Few expect the Bears to get past No. 4 Oklahoma or truly compete for a national championship, and that’s just how Briles likes it.
“We have a lot of things to prove,” Briles said. “There are a lot of things out there we haven’t done, so we have a lot of motivation, we have a lot of pride, but we have a great product to put it in. Once we feel like we’ve done something, then we’re done.”
Baylor will open its season at 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 31 against SMU. The Bears will open their $260 million McLane Stadium on the banks of the Brazos River, bringing football back on Baylor’s campus. The game will be nationally broadcast on Fox Sports 1.