By Ben Everett | Sports Editor
When the current senior class arrived on Baylor’s campus their freshman year, the Baylor football program was in a much different place.
The Bears had won back-to-back Big 12 Championships and were looking to add to their trophy case, holding the No. 4 ranking in the preseason Associated Press poll and hopes for a College Football Playoff bid.
Things quickly changed.
Baylor quarterbacks Seth Russell and Jarrett Stidham suffered season-ending injuries and the Bears finished the season 10-3 after a win in the Russell Athletic Bowl. After the season, a program-rocking scandal broke which saw head coach Art Briles fired.
While players such as Stidham and quarterback Chris Johnson transferred away and high-level recruits such as Kameron Martin, Kellen Mond and Devin Duvernay de-committed from Baylor, others stuck with the program.
Jim Grobe was hired to be Baylor’s interim head coach in 2016 while the Bears searched for a long-term fit. The Bears went 7-6 in Grobe’s lone year in Waco.
In 2017, Matt Rhule made his debut as Baylor’s head coach. A 1-11 season followed.
Better times were ahead, according to Rhule. The second-year head coach promised a bowl game in his second season.
Sitting at 5-5 on Nov. 16, the Bears had the opportunity to make that bowl dream come true with a home game against rival TCU. The Horned Frogs came away with a 16-9 victory on Baylor’s senior night. Senior offensive lineman Patrick Lawrence said the loss to TCU was one of the toughest of his career.
“It’s really tough, heartbreaking honestly,” Lawrence said. “Been here since me and my class played the first game in McLane and just really would have been a storybook ending to go get it done against TCU [in our] last game here, but it didn’t work out. We’ve got to live with that and get ready for next week.”
Baylor’s bowl eligibility came down to a matchup with Texas Tech on Nov. 24 in Arlington. The Bears prevailed 35-24 to finish off the regular season bowl eligible. Senior offensive lineman Blake Blackmar said securing bowl eligibility in his senior season was a great feeling.
“Of all of the games I’ve been a part of, this is probably the most special,” Blackmar said. “You think of all of the things we’ve been through and everything that could have happened and would have happened, and you gotta shut all of that out … It just feels great. Almost an indescribable feeling on the field being able to grab your brothers and celebrate.”
Senior receiver Jalen Hurd had multiple lingering injuries leading up to the Texas Tech game, but he played and notched three receptions for 41 yards. Rhule said he told Hurd to sit out because he didn’t want to risk his professional football career, but Hurd insisted on playing against the Red Raiders.
“It was something in his knee, something in his ankle. He just got invited to Senior Bowl. [He’s] probably a first-round draft pick. [I said], ‘Jalen, you should sit this one out.’ He was like, ‘No, Coach. I’m playing.’”
Senior wide receiver Chris Platt had his best game of the season, catching six passes for a season-high 114 yards against the Red Raiders. Platt, who had his junior season cut short due to a left knee injury, struggled this year. Before the Texas Tech game, Platt had just 390 receiving yards, his lowest mark since his freshman year. Rhule said Platt has been inconsistent since his injury, so his performance against Texas Tech was reassuring.
“What a day by Chris Platt to step up,” Rhule said. “Coming off the knee [injury]. And things haven’t always gone to him this year the way he wanted. I thought he made some unbelievable plays. That was the key to me today.”
Other senior contributors for the Bears include safety Verkedric Vaughns, defensive tackle Ira Lewis, All-Big 12 first team punter Drew Galitz, quarterback Jalan McClendon, cornerback Derrek Thomas, defensive ends Greg Roberts and Xavier Jones and offensive linemen Josh Malin and Christian Beard.
Going from 10 wins in 2015 to one win in 2017, the seniors have experienced up-and-down careers. They will have a chance to get one final victory in a Baylor uniform when they face Vanderbilt at 8 p.m. Dec. 27 in the Texas Bowl in Houston.