By DJ Ramirez | Sports Editor
NEW ORLEANS — The world of football will just have to get used to the idea that Matt Rhule might just be Baylor’s head coach for the next decade.
While Rhule’s No. 7 Bears prepare to take on No. 5 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl tonight, the chatter on whether the third-year coach will leave Baylor for a position in the NFL continues to circulate.
That’s what happens when you turn a 1-11 team into a force to be reckoned with in just two years. Rhule acknowledged that it comes with the territory of building a competitive football program, but that all the talk of NFL job offers has began to distract from the game that’s to be played.
“I was talking to James Lynch yesterday,” Rhule said to the media in his last press conference of 2019. “Like he said, it’s part of my job. When our players play well and when they do things like they’ve done … people are going to take notice of not just me, but my staff. The guys on my staff were offered Division I jobs this year, head coaching jobs, and were pretty committed to being at Baylor. It’s a wonderful place.”
So, Rhule has set the record straight, saying he will “certainly” be back in Waco next year and that he hasn’t been contacted by anyone about any coaching jobs.
“There’s a lot to accomplish at Baylor,” Rhule said. “Most importantly, it’s just each and every year, I want to put together a championship-caliber team. And I think we have a chance to be even better next year than we were this year.”
And what better way to continue building a “championship-caliber” team than by facing a team who was in the championship game the same year that Baylor was losing 11.
With a talented quarterback in Jake Fromm and a unique rotating defense, the Bulldogs could be Baylor’s toughest opponent yet.
“They play a lot of people and they just do a great job against the run,” Bears’ offensive coordinator Jeff Nixon said on Monday. “I think they’ve only given up one rushing touchdown all year, and they do a great job covering receivers. So we have a challenge on our hands.”
A challenge is exactly what Rhule wants for his junior quarterback Charlie Brewer, who will be starting tonight against the Bulldogs after recovering from a concussion that led him to miss the majority of the Big 12 championship game. The Bears are used to sending Brewer on the run, a play that will be more difficult against Georgia’s defense.
“I think this is a great game for him to develop as a quarterback because you’re not going to run around back there and reverse field and all that stuff against these guys,” Rhule said. “It’s one thing to talk about timing and push your quarterbacks to go one, two, three, hitch, throw, check it down. It’s another thing when all of a sudden you have these guys rushing you.
So my hope is that Charlie will take a step as a quarterback — get the ball out of his hands because that’s what you have to do against these guys.”
The Bears might be able to take advantage of Georgia’s recent struggles, however. Up to 13 of UGA’s starters are questionable for tonight’s matchup, including Bulldog’s star safety and All-American player J.R. Reed, who is out with an injury.
Even with several players missing, Georgia has something to prove just as much as Baylor does. The Bulldogs have been here before, suffering a 28-21 upset to Texas in last year’s Sugar Bowl.
Sophomore wide receiver Tyquan Thornton said in Monday’s offensive player press conference that the Bears have prepared for Georgia in the same way they would have if those 13 Bulldogs were taking the field.
“We are going to take it step-by-step and take advantage of every opportunity we get,” Thornton said. “Even if all their guys are down, they are still going to attack in the same way.”
In much the same way that Georgia will attempt to limit the run game for the Bears, Baylor’s highly effective three-down front will look to do the same thing. Georgia head coach Kirby Smart commented on how good the Bears’ defense is at creating confusion with a defensive strategy that not many other programs have been comfortable with implementing.
“They really get knocked-back penetration and allow people to run the ball,” Smart said. “ It creates an illusion for the quarterback. You don’t always know the coverage. You can scheme more. There’s more depth in the defense. And they are the leading innovators, talking about Baylor and their staff, at creating confusion about what they do.”
According to Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Snow, a lot of the success the Bears have had with the three-man front is because they were able to keep the players in those positions relatively healthy throughout the season.
“[Bravvion] Roy, [James] Lockhart and [James] Lynch — those three guys staying healthy have really helped us,” Snow said. “A lot of three-man-front teams are real conservative with the three-down guys. They’re too gapping and all that. That’s not really our style of football. So we’re a little bit more aggressive with the three-down guys.”
A key piece to that front, Lynch has been nothing short of stellar for Baylor. The Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and unanimous All-American, among other accolades, has a knack for getting to the quarterback, setting records in career sacks (21.0) and sacks in a single season (12.5). Rhule said Lynch has accomplished these things largely because of his athleticism and speed.
“He’s tremendously athletic for a big man,” Rhule said. “He’s 300 pounds but runs a shuttle like a secondary player. And so it’s his quickness that’s allowed him to have the production that he’s had. And he’s a relentless player, a smart player … Most of his sacks come out of a three-man front where he gets double-teamed. He has a tremendous ability to change his body angles, and he just find a way to get to the quarterback.”
The Bears will face a quarterback in Jake Fromm that Rhule and Snow see as a “pro-style” quarterback. Fromm calls everything from the line of scrimmage himself, completing 214 passes on 355 attempts for 2,610 yards of total offense, all from passing.
“In terms of Jake, you see a player who’s extremely intelligent, gets them in the right play,” Rhule said. “Get him in the right protection, get him in the right play, that makes it difficult for the defense because you have to disguise. You have to throw them different looks.”
Baylor’s road to the Sugar Bowl has been a long and difficult one, three years in the making. For the seniors on the team, it’s been a lot of hard work and sacrifice, and many of them plan on leaving it all on the field one last time for the Green and Gold.
“Three years ago, no one saw the end of this journey,” senior linebacker Jordan Williams said. “We really did not know what was going to come out of this journey. We just kept pushing each other each and every day. Those past two seasons built up for this. They were stepping stones to build on to coming into this year.
We have a chance to go out there and really prove ourselves. We are going to prove we can go out there and play with some of the best guys in the country.”