By Jeffrey Swindoll
At the start of the 2014 season, Baylor head coach Art Briles cast a vision for his team. Briles made it clear that Baylor football is gunning for a repeat of winning the Big 12 Conference title, no excuses.
As the season went on, and the Bears garnered a bigger and bigger national spotlight each week. The inaugural College Football Playoffs were looming large in the back of everyone’s mind. Members of the media constantly asked the bears questions about the playoffs, making it impossible for the Bears to dodge the issue. Briles and his players did the best they could to not put the cart before the horse. First thing was first: without a conference title, a college football playoff berth was out of the question. Briles knew it. His players knew it. The Big 12 title was the be all, end all for the Bears in 2014.
Baylor’s 2014 Big 12 campaign was a nine-round heavyweight fight. Repeating a championship, in the Big 12 especially, is extremely difficult, Briles said.
“That’s why Seattle is struggling a bit this year,” Briles said. “The Pac-12, The Big 10 and the SEC, those people are having new champions. The Big 12 and the ACC repeated. It’s tough to do. Last year it was a thrill, it was exciting, it was hopeful, and this year, it’s like what I was saying, we got the windows rolled up and the doors locked because someone is trying to get to us and you know, we’re not taking jabs, we’re taking haymakers. They’re trying to knock us out.”
Weeks before the season kicked off, the Big 12 showcased their brand new logo and, most notably, their slogan — “One true champion.” Ironically, the Big 12 is the only ‘Power 5’ conference without a championship game. Furthermore, the Big 12 ended up having two champions this season, not one.
Although the speculation and controversy at the national level shrouded Baylor’s accomplishments this season, it was a historic year for the Bears. Amidst the media mayhem, the Bears had a tough season of conference competition to play. The Bears would end up as the centerpiece of college football’s biggest debate of the season, but their journey started out intimately, without much care for the national picture.
The 2014 season began as a celebration of Baylor’s settlement in the top 25 and the growth of its once below average program. This would gradually evolve into an expose of Baylor’s exploration of the dark unknown that looked to be a potential final four finish and a spot in the national championship for much of the season.
For the first time ever, Baylor would open its season as the defending Big 12 champion, which just happened to be the same year the Bears would debut their pristine new palace on the Brazos, McLane Stadium. Overall, McLane was nothing short of a success. The waterfront view and ‘sailgating’ were notable additions to the Baylor game-day experience, but the greatest victory of the new stadium was a matter of continuing a three-year trend in Baylor football.
“You can’t find a better stadium in the United States of America to play a football game on the Brazos River with the bridge that we have and the atmosphere,” Briles said. “It’s a big thrill, a great privilege, and I’m very thankful to be a part of it.”
The Bears simply do not lose at home. Even against ranked opponents, the Bears are tried and true at home. This season, the Bears played two of the hardest home games in all of college football. It would not take long for the Bears’ grit at home to be tested. After spending a month on the road to start the season, including a 28-7 win over Texas in Austin, the Bears faced their bitter rivals, No. 9 TCU, at McLane Stadium on Oct. 11.
What occurred on that day in Waco shattered expectations and would later serve as the single most discussed game in the College Football Playoff controversy. With 11 minutes left in the game, Baylor overcame a massive 21-point lead to topple TCU thanks to late-game heroics from senior quarterback Bryce Petty and freshman kicker Chris Callahan’s 28-yard field goal as time expired. By this point, you have to have lived under a landslide of rocks to not know the score of that game. 61-58.
After beating a conference heavyweight in TCU, the Bears faltered in Morgantown, W. Va., losing 41-27. Penalties bombarded the Bears who scored a season-low in points scored and total offensive yards against the Mountaineers. In addition, the Bears entire right side of the offensive line (senior tackle Troy Baker and junior guard Desmine Hilliard) suffered season-ending injuries in Morgantown. Repeating as Big 12 champions would have to be done without one of the team’s most vocal leaders and pound-for-pound best players.
A loss to their name made the Bears’ campaign for another championship an even greater challenge to be faced in games against the likes of Oklahoma on the road and Kansas State in the season finale.
The Bears had not won a game in Norman, Okla.; ever. Petty made sure of that not sticking for much longer. The fifth-year senior arguably played his best career game on that day against the Sooners. Briles dubbed Baylor’s 48-14 thrashing of Oklahoma the best road win in the country this season.
Petty, who struggled in the early going of the season with streaky play, silenced his critics, completing 32 of his 42 pass attempts, totalling 387 yards and a touchdown. Petty really was “ready for OU” — a phrase that he repeated in the postgame press conference after the Bears’ 60-14 victory over Kansas.
Baylor’s playoff campaign was picking up steam after a statement win over the No. 15 Sooners. The Bears went on to take care of business against Oklahoma State at home, and somehow managed to escape AT&T Stadium with a 48-46 win over Texas Tech in Arlington. Meanwhile, the College Football Playoff committee was being put in a harder position. All the teams in the CFP top six kept on winning, but Baylor was riding in the back seat for the playoff race.
Tension rose to an all-time high after the selection committee placed TCU at No. 3, Ohio State at No. 5 and Baylor at No. 6 in the final week of the regular season.
The Bears would need a win against No. 9 Kansas State and then some help to even have a chance at being in the final four. Debate broke out all across national sports media, and Baylor was front and center.
The talking heads were at it all week while the Bears were on the practice field and in the film room, working towards another Big 12 Championship. The Bears were playing with frustration, hope and desire at this point. Most of all was desire, and the thing they desired the most was a Big 12 championship.
Winning back-to-back conference titles, whether that be with the uncomfortable “co-champion” label or not, is tremendous feat, Briles said. The Bears believed that, in and of itself, a Big 12 title would be a sufficient argument to be in the playoff. Baylor did just that.
“We feel like [Briles] has led one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history,” Director of Athletics Ian McCaw said. “To be in a position where Baylor is playing for back-to-back Big 12 championships, it speaks to the incredible job he has done and the quality of our football program. Baylor will be a force to be reckoned within the Big 12 and nationally for years to come.”
The Bears handily defeated the Kansas State Wildcats 38-27, securing the Big 12 title for the second year in-a-row. Baylor became only the second school ever to win back-to-back Big 12 titles (Oklahoma 2006, 2007). Regardless of Baylor being left out of the national final four, Petty is keeping things in perspective.
“It’s great [to be back-to-back Big 12 champs], it really is,” Petty said. “I am so proud of every one of those guys in the locker room. There’s something about a brotherhood. When you work so hard with each other, offseason, summer condition and fall camp, you’ve got a common goal that everybody is so committed to and then you reach that goal, and it happens, it’s the greatest feeling in the world. And I couldn’t be more happy than of the guys I am doing it with.”