Let the good times roll: No. 7 Bears arrive in New Orleans ahead of Sugar Bowl

The Baylor University football team arrives at New Orleans International Airport, in advance of the Sugar Bowl NCAA football game, in New Orleans on Friday. Left to right are offensive lineman Sam Tecklenburg, defensive end James Lockhart, offensive lineman Xavier Newman and defensive tackle Bravvion Roy. Baylor will play against Georgia Wednesday night. Associated Press

By DJ Ramirez | Sports Editor

To the sounds of the Third Line Brass Band, the Bears have landed in New Orleans.

Ahead of its New Year’s Day matchup against No. 5 Georgia in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, No. 7 Baylor football is prepared to take on the Bulldogs just as much as it is ready to experience the culture and cuisine of the Crescent City.

“I am really ready for the food and the music and I’m not even going to lie, I’m ready for Bourbon Street,”senior linebacker Jordan Williams said. “I have never been on Bourbon Street and I just want to go see it and visit. I want to see a lot of things and hear a lot of music.”

Even head coach Matt Rhule is excited to take in New Orleans, saying he and his wife Julie Rhule already have reservations planned during their stay, the two of them being huge “foodies.”

But as much as they will enjoy their trip, the Bears are not taking anything for granted after a heartbreaking loss in the Big 12 Championship. According to Rhule, the team is “highly motivated” to play in the Sugar Bowl.

“And we have to be because this is such a great team we’re facing,” Rhule said. “I’m motivated. I have never really met Coach [Kirby] Smart, but I certainly respect him. So a chance to go against him as a head coach, I have to be at my best.”

It’s clear that Baylor doesn’t lack motivation or competitive drive. The Bears’ first order of business in New Orleans was not to check into their hotel, but rather to check into the Saints’ facility for practice.

Just as the Bears prepare for the Bulldogs, Georgia head coach Kirby Smart is also aware of the competitiveness that his team will face in Baylor, saying he has a lot of respect for what Rhule has accomplished with the program.

“You think about every game they’ve played in — they’ve played in a lot of tight ball games,” Smart said. “But I have a lot of respect for the way they’ve played. They have an unbelievable defensive unit. Their quarterback is healthy and back. Obviously have played Oklahoma tooth and nail in two fourth-quarter games … we’ll have our work cut out for us as we head out and prepare for them.”

The biggest question for Baylor after its championship loss to No. 4 Oklahoma on Dec. 7 was if junior quarterback Charlie Brewer would play after being pulled from that game under concussion protocol but Rhule said that Brewer was cleared to play for Wednesday.

“Charlie practiced last Saturday, right before we went on break for Christmas,” Rhule said. “He’s one of the main reasons we’re here. I thought [Jacob] Zeno and Gerry [Bohanon] filled in admirably for him in the Big 12 championship game. But he deserves to play in that game. He wasn’t able to play very much in that game, but he’s able to play now.”

Brewer wasn’t the only player cleared to compete in the Sugar Bowl. Senior defensive tackle Bravvion Roy, who had surgery right after the Big 12 championship game, also practiced on Saturday. According to Rhule, “everyone is going to play.”

Things could have been very different for both the Bulldogs and the Bears. If Baylor had not fallen one play short of beating the No. 4 Sooners in Arlington, Texas at the beginning of the month, the Bears would be in Atlanta getting ready to battle No. 1 LSU in the playoff.

Or, had Georgia defeated the Tigers in the SEC championship, Baylor would be playing in San Antonio or Orlando or somewhere else entirely.

But Rhule and his team know there is no use in holding on to “what could have been.” They are just grateful for the opportunity to play in this game.

“Our program, we just don’t believe in entitlement,” Rhule said. “We are grateful for everything we get … We’re going to leg up next year and we’re going to fight, scratch and claw to go to the College Football Playoff again, to win the whole thing. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to get there.”

“I think this is an amazing opportunity. This is the Sugar Bowl.”

Baylor and Georgia square off at 7:45 p.m. CT on New Year’s Day at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.