By Jeffrey Swindoll
At the halfway mark through Baylor football’s 2014 season, questions still linger on how good the Bears can be. In the past three weeks, the perception of the Bears’ standing in the conference and the country has changed substantially, rising and falling.
The Bears started the season with no real surprises on the field, trouncing the opponent in each of their three non-conference games against SMU, Northwestern State and Buffalo. Baylor’s signature, high-powered, pass-heavy offense what they have become known for – scoring a lot of touchdowns, and scoring fast.
In retrospect, it’s easy to say the Bears took care of business on the field with much ease, but the beginning of the season had its fair share of distractions that could have tripped up the Bears. First, Baylor opened their brand-new McLane Stadium. Attention for the team rose to fever pitch. Fans wanted to see the Bears play in the new stadium and the media hype added to that fire.
Baylor head coach Art Briles and senior quarterback Bryce Petty said that the stadium is a great addition to the program, but emphasized that the team is, first and foremost, concerned with winning football games and protecting their “palace.” The Bears heeded Petty’s words well. They have yet to lose in McLane Stadium.
On top of the stadium opening, the Bears had to play the majority of their first game and the entire second game without their quarterback, and leader, Petty. Sophomore quarterback Seth Russell entered into the Baylor Nation spotlight and did not miss a beat. Russell set records and seamlessly stitched the gaping hole in the offense that the injured Petty left behind. Russell stepped up, did his job and passed the baton back to Petty for the Buffalo game.
The Bears were still not back to full strength in their final pre-conference game though. Experienced receivers like seniors Levi Norwood and Clay Fuller each had injuries for the first three games of 2014. Living up to the nickname ‘Wide Receiver U’, the Bears’ youngest receivers, namely freshman receiver KD Cannon, shined the brightest in the senior absences.
Overall, the first three games of the season challenged the depth of Briles’ roster, specifically on offense, and the young players were up to the task when their names were called. Considering the distractions and complications with starters out of the lineup, it could’ve been a bumpy start for the Bears. However, Baylor opened the season with a perfect record against non-conference teams and picked up valuable conference road wins at Iowa State and Texas.
The Bears returned home after three-straight away games, rising in the AP rankings and building momentum for a potential berth in the inaugural College Football Playoff. No. 5 Baylor hosted No. 9 TCU in a game that turned out to be an instant classic at McLane Stadium. The Bears pulled off a dramatic fourth quarter comeback to beat the undefeated Horned Frogs to stay perfect on the season and continue their campaign for a College Football Playoff spot. That campaign would come to a screeching halt one week after the storybook ending against TCU.
“It was a really good win the other night [against TCU], significant for a variety of reasons,” Briles said. “First of all, we got bowl-eligible and secondly, [it kept] us in the competition for a Big 12 championship.”
The high point of the Bears’ season came one week before their lowest point. Baylor hit the road again, this time to Morgantown, W. Va., a place where the Bears continue to struggle. Unranked West Virginia derailed the No. 4 Bears hype-train of national championship hopes, stumping the Bears 41-27. The West Virginia game damaged Baylor’s College Football Playoff poll stock. The Bears were no longer undefeated and lost to an unranked team. At this point, many pundits have written Baylor off as a team on the outside of the College Football Playoff, looking in.
The Bears return to McLane Stadium and start their road of redemption against the University of Kansas at 3 p.m. tomorrow. The Jayhawks (2-5, 0-4) are undeniably the conference’s worst team. Having benched starting quarterback Montell Cozart, and fired head coach Charlie Weis a few games into the season, the Jayhawks are in shambles ahead of their clash with the Bears tomorrow.
“[Kansas is] a team that’s been through a lot, so you’ve got to admire their players for their resiliency in having a coaching staff change and to keep fighting and keep going like they’re going in conference play,” Briles said.
The Jayhawks’ defense has two of the conferences Top 5 players in tackles for loss and sacks. Their porous offense shadows the Jayhawk’s generally talented and effective defense this season.
“Thirty-three points is the most points they’ve had scored on them and in this league that’s pretty good,” Briles said. “They’re extremely talented and playing really good defense. It’s a conference opponent. Anytime you play a conference team you know you’re going to be in for a battle and this will be no different.”
KU is, by far, the Bears’ easiest conference opponent at home this season. The Jayhawks have struggled in stringing drives together for touchdowns. The Jayhawks lack a playmaker at the receiver position and are inefficient running the ball.
Kansas has close results against conference opponents, including two games decided by just one touchdown against Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, but the Bears are heavily favored in tomorrow’s matchup. The Bears’ offense can put points on just about any team in the country, and the Bears’ defense hangs with the Big 12’s best as well.
Most of the concerns ahead of Baylor’s homecoming matchup with Kansas come from within the Bears’ own camp. Senior offensive tackle Troy Baker, an outspoken leader and arguably the team’s best lineman suffered a season-ending ACL injury against West Virginia. The Bears were left to find a replacement for Baker who leaves big shoes to fill, both literally and figuratively.
“Losing Troy to injury and not having him on the field as a leader hurts,” junior offensive tackle Spencer Drango said. “He always knew what to do about everything. I do have to fill some of that void and take up some slack, but the other guys on the line can fill in too.”
Petty’s completion rate is down to nearly 50 percent, missing many wide open looks at key moments throughout the conference schedule. Petty looks to right those wrongs against Kansas.
“Everything that we set out to do is still ahead of us,” Petty said. “We are fine in that aspect of it. We need to take care of Kansas, and the rest will take care of itself.”