Small Beginnings: No. 4 football begins 2015 campaign at SMU

No. 2 red shirt freshman running back Johnny Jefferson runs the ball against SMU on August 31, 2014. The Bears defeated the Mustangs 45-0. Photo credit: Lariat File Photo

Every thousand-mile journey begins with a single step. In the Bears’ case, their journey for another Big 12 title and a berth into the College Football Playoff begins with a 99-mile trip to Dallas.

The No. 4 Bears take on the Southern Methodist University Mustangs at 7 p.m. today at Gerald J. Ford Stadium.

The lack of so-called “statement games” in the Bears’ schedule weakened the Bears’ case for a playoff bid last season. Baylor seeks a different outcome in 2015.

“The only statement we need to make is to win,” Baylor head coach Art Briles said.

Tonight’s game marks a small look back at what was once a thrilling rivalry between two Christian institutions from the Southwestern Conference era.

SMU is led by new head coach Chad Morris, who takes over the program after spending the last four seasons as the offensive coordinator at Clemson University.

Although the Bears have beaten the Mustangs by a combined score of 104-24 the last two contests, Briles said he is well aware of the coaching change and expects a tough challenge.

The Bears are heavily favored to beat the Mustangs. However, Briles said Morris’ resume is strong and warrants respect.

Morris was named head coach of SMU after serving as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Clemson University between 2011 and 2014. In that time, Clemson rose in the rankings and challenged in-conference powerhouse Florida State for ACC dominance.

Morris was the mastermind behind Clemson’s offenses that were known for explosive players. Receivers Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins and Martavis Bryant were all successful under Morris’ spread scheme while at Clemson.

“[Morris] is a really, really good football coach and he’s done a great job everywhere he’s been,” Briles said. “From an offensive standpoint … we’re looking at basically all the Clemson, a little bit of Tulsa from back in the day.”

SMU has a good amount of talent to work with this season. Receiver Darius Joseph totaled 157 receptions and 1,184 yards in the Mustangs’ past two seasons. Quarterback Matt Davis (855 passing yards, 613 rushing), who started the last five games for the Mustangs last season, returns under center.

With an athletic quarterback at the helm, Morris may opt to go deep often, mixed with several screens and outside runs.

The Bears can certainly improve on their pass defense from last season as they ranked 104th out of 128 teams in the FBS, allowing an average of 260 passing yards per game.

Pressuring SMU’s quarterback will be no issue for the Bears, as their defensive line led by senior Shawn Oakman and junior Andrew Billings has been consistently ranked as one of the nation’s top units. Oakman and Billings combined for 90 tackles, 31.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks in 2014.

“Everybody is hungry and willing to fight for each other,” Young said. “That’s just the vibe of the defense, just going out there and destroying the offense and everybody,”

The secondary is also returning its core, with junior safety Orion Stewart eturning after registering 82 tackles and four interceptions. Junior cornerbacks Xavien Howard and Ryan Reid also return after starting full time for the Bears in 2014. Senior safety Terrell Burt said the team’s experience from last season will help them improve.

“Yeah, I believe in your first year you’re going to have some adversity to go through, but we all as a unit have been trying to get together, communicate more,” Burt said. “We’ve put in some different coverages to help them out as well, so I believe this year will be a great year for the secondary.”

Baylor will field new starting quarterback Seth Russell. Russell saw some playing time last season against the Mustangs. It’s a bit different this time. He won’t be coming in as a backup and it won’t be with the massive support of McLane Stadium behind him.

“Everybody is ready to go,” Russell said. “With the type of players I have around me, you can’t ask for anything better than that. I don’t feel much pressure just because of the playmakers around me.”

SMU ranked 109th in passing yards allowed last season. This bodes well for Baylor’s notoriously prolific pass attack that dismantled SMU in last season’s opener.

Junior Corey Coleman and sophomore K.D. Cannon combined for 2,000 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2014. If Cannon scored three touchdowns in 15 minutes against the Mustangs last season, then there’s no telling what the Bears have in store for tonight.