Plenty to play for: Bears seek Sugar Bowl bid

Senior tight end LaQuan McGowan celebrates a touchdown catch during the game between Baylor and Oklahoma on Nov. 14 at McLane Stadium. McGowan will play his final home game for the Bears on Saturday. Photo credit: Penelope Shirey

With the 2015 season whittling down to the last week of games, the Baylor Bears find themselves in a vastly different position than they have been the last two seasons.

After suffering a loss to TCU last week, the Bears are not the Big 12 champions for the first time since 2013. For the Baylor seniors, the game represents the end of their era, which was the most prolific in Baylor’s history.

“You look back to the guys who have been here five years – they’ve seen Baylor win a Heisman Trophy with RG3 in 2011, they’ve been involved in two Big 12 Championships, and they have the possibility to be a part of four-out-of-five 10-win seasons, and potentially play in a New Year’s six game. So that’s a big, big deal,” said head coach Art Briles.

Senior left tackle Spencer Drango, who has been a starter when healthy his entire Baylor career, knows the gravity of this game.

With the Longhorns coming into the game with no hopes of a bowl game, the Bears can send off the seniors in winning fashion.

“We have a big game this weekend and it’s senior night, so hopefully we can send all the seniors off on the right note,” Drango said.

The bowl mentioned by Briles is in fact the Sugar Bowl. Due to the Big 12’s policy on tiebreakers, point differential comes into play before head-to-head.

The Bears own the tiebreaker for second place in the conference, and with conference champion Oklahoma in the playoffs, the Bears are off to New Orleans.

However, they must first finish off the season with a victory against a Texas Longhorns team that is hungry and desperate.

“We know they’re going to pull out everything for us, so we can’t play with emotions going into this Texas game. We just have to go out there and execute, and whatever happens with the bowl situation happens,” said sophomore nickelback Travon Blanchard.

The Longhorns will surely pull out all the stops against the Bears. Texas is 4-7 on the season in Charlie Strong’s second year as head coach, yet still fields some talented players on both sides of the ball.

“Playmaking ability is high on the list, and experience, in [quarterback Tyrone] Swoopes’ case. He’s been their off-and-on starter for about two years, and I would guess [Jerrod] Heard has started maybe eight of their games this year, so those are two very, very good quarterbacks,” said Briles of the Longhorns’ two-QB system this season.

In the backfield, freshman running back Chris Warren has exploded onto the scene, rushing for a freshman record against Texas Tech last weekend. The Bears are coming off back-to-back good performances against the run, allowing just eight to Oklahoma State two weeks ago.

If the Bears can force the Longhorns to pass the ball on second and third and long downs, expect the Bears to control this game throughout the day.

For the Bears, sophomore quarterback Chris Johnson will receive the start for just the second time in his career. After coming in to relieve an injured Jarrett Stidham in Stillwater, Johnson’s abilities were held in check by the downpour against the Horned Frogs.

“It was definitely tough. Right after the game I was upset with myself mainly because there were a lot of things that I feel like I could have done differently or done better to help us win that game. But going back and watching film, it gives you a different perspective on things. My head is clear mentally. It’s done, so now our focus is on beating Texas,” Johnson said.

The Baylor offense should get right back to their old selves against a Texas defense that ranks 108th in the country in terms of yards allowed per game.

Should the Bears win the game against the Longhorns, it will mark the third straight year Baylor has won at least 10 games.

With the trip to the Sugar Bowl, the Bears will have also been to three straight BCS/New Year’s Six bowl games as well.

Look for Baylor to finish in style and send off the best senior class in school history. Kick off is scheduled for 11 a.m. at McLane Stadium. Coverage of the game will be provided by ESPN.