Bowl bid a major step in the right direction for Matt Rhule

Baylor head coach Matt Rhule and senior quarterback Jalan McClendon share a moment after the Bears’ 35-24 bowl-clinching win over Texas Tech on Nov. 24 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Jason Pedreros | Multimedia Journalist

By Ben Everett | Sports Editor

Five wins was not going to be enough.

After second-year head coach Matt Rhule promised Baylor fans a bowl game, Baylor Nation was not about to let him off the hook if he came up short.

From early season quarterback controversy to seemingly weekly special teams miscues to the defense giving up big play after big play, there have been plenty of ways in which the Baylor coaching staff can be heavily scrutinized. Baylor fans would have put each of these topics under the microscope if the Bears had finished with five wins.

But they didn’t.

Success erases doubt. At least for some time. Baylor fans will now spend their holiday season planning around watching Rhule and his team compete in a bowl game for the first time since he was hired as the Bears’ lead man. If they win? Icing on top of a spectacular redemption story cake. If they lose? It’s a young team and its only Rhule’s second year at the helm. Give them some time.

One thing is for certain, however: Rhule needed to reach this point. He put some unnecessary pressure on himself by declaring before the season even started that this team would reach a bowl, but with the talent this team has, missing out on postseason play would have been underperforming.

Quarterback Charlie Brewer is a stud. Jalen Hurd is an NFL-caliber wide receiver. Denzel Mims is one of the most talented receivers in the Big 12. The offensive line is laden with experience. James Lynch is an All-Big 12 defensive force. Clay Johnston could be the Big 12’s best linebacker once he plays a full season. The secondary is experienced and versatile.

Don’t get me wrong. This team doesn’t have the level of talent the 2013 and 2014 Big 12 Champions had. It’s not particularly close. But this roster is set up for success. A large part of that is due to Rhule. He went and got those talented freshmen and sophomores. He convinced Hurd and cornerback Derrek Thomas to spend their final seasons of eligibility wearing green and gold.

He put together this roster. The question was whether or not he could win with it.

There were some ups and downs. The Bears probably should have beaten a Daniel Jones-less Duke team at home. They had Texas on the ropes in Austin and couldn’t finish. The offense was a no-show against arch-rival TCU. Six wins could have been eight. But the important part is that they made a bowl. If six wins was four, there would be some calling for a coaching change. I would definitely have my doubts.

In a Q&A with The Daily Athenaeum, I wrote that Baylor might have a chance to compete for a Big 12 Championship in 2021 and beyond once the entire team is Rhule’s recruits and the coaching staff has fully implemented their culture and schemes. At Temple, Rhule went 2-10 in his first year, 6-6 in his second year and then won the American Athletic Conference in back-to-back years with 10 win seasons.

So far at Baylor, we’ve got 1-11 and 6-6. If Rhule can win the Big 12 title next year, this would be one of the greatest rebuilding jobs in college football history. But for now, he’s on track to return the Bears to relevance and consistency.