By Michael Haag | Sports Editor
The long wait is over as No. 10 Baylor football gears up for its home opener versus the University of Albany, with kickoff set for 6 p.m. Saturday at McLane Stadium. The 10th-ranked Bears open the season as favorites to win the Big 12, coming off a program-best 12-win season.
Fresh off fall camp, head coach Dave Aranda is ready to get the season underway and said he saw a lot of growth over the last few months.
“[I’m] excited to get to game week,” Aranda said. “This camp has been very good for us. You could see guys starting the camp looking for belief and looking for something to hold on to and something to build upon. [It] felt like throughout the camp, the foundation to all of it became stronger and more fortified and [I] felt a ton of growth.”
This is the first time Baylor has ever faced the Great Danes and the contest serves as the first meeting against a Football Championship Subdivision school since its 56-17 defeat of Stephen F. Austin State University in 2019.
The Bears are 17-1 all-time against FCS programs, the lone loss coming against Villanova University in 1941. Although heavily favored, Aranda expects to be challenged by UAlbany on Saturday.
“It gives us an opportunity to come out and really be challenged to be at our best,” Aranda said. “Winning at every level takes so much. It’s just very difficult to do. For a lot of young people, for them to be at their best, for them to give the effort and the detail that’s needed to give us a chance to win, that’s going to be a very strong test for them.”
One Bear who is no stranger to season openers is sixth-year senior offensive lineman Jacob Gall. The grizzled vet still finds excitement in first games and is ready to face someone outside of the Baylor green and gold.
“Coming here, it’s year six for me,” Gall said. “So I’m always excited to get to week one and get to play someone new besides our defense. I love preparing for a new team like this at the beginning of the season.”
On the opposite side of the trenches, junior defensive lineman Siaki “Apu” Ika reflected Gall’s comments, as he said “everyone’s itching to play [and] hit someone who’s not in green.”
“Everyone’s excited,” Apu said. “We have some young dudes that are ready, excited to play, make some noise, make a name for themselves. So, overall, everyone’s excited for Saturday.”
One question surrounding the team has been who will be taking handoffs on a down-to-down basis. It didn’t come quickly, but the Bears decided who their starting running back would be after announcing their full depth chart Monday morning.
Junior tailback Taye McWilliams was given the nod, as he’s expected to carry the load for week one. McWilliams said he’s adjusting to being the lead back after playing a backup roll to standouts Abram Smith and Trestan Ebner last season.
“It’s a lot different,” McWilliams said. “I have to dive way more into the preparation of a game, knowing that I have to be counted on.”
The Richmond native said since his two mentors are gone, it’s forced him to embrace the role of being the focal point in the backfield.
“It was Abe and them leaving, knowing that they’re gone and they’re [not] going to be able to tell me what to do anymore,” McWilliams said. “I’m going to have to do [it] myself.”
McWilliams posted a 100-yard game in the 2021 home-opener against Texas Southern University as the third-string running back. What he showed then and what he’s done this fall give Gall and the rest of the offense lots of confidence in his ability.
“Taye is just a fantastic runner,” Gall said. “His ability to kind of do anything is really what makes him so special.”
Baylor lost six players to the NFL over the summer, but Aranda isn’t focused on finding replacements. The one thing he wants to see in week one is for the Bears to have an identity.
“There’s a jazz musician who said, ‘Jazz is simple, but simple ain’t easy,’” Aranda said. “It would be great to really be good at the ‘simple ain’t easy’ part. There’s a fair amount of teams that may struggle with that part. For us to really make an impact in that area would be ideal.”
Kickoff is not far away, and Baylor will look to put that identity on tape against the Great Danes on Saturday. The game can be watched on Big 12 Now on ESPN+ or listened to via ESPN Central Texas 1660 AM radio.
Apu is ready for McLane Stadium’s atmosphere this weekend, as the Louisiana State University transfer can’t wait for fans to welcome the Sugar Bowl champs back for a new year.
“Me personally, I like the buildup,” Apu said. “From waking up to eating breakfast, the pregame meeting, pregame walk-through, the Bear Walk, seeing all the fans. The energy buildup is a rush like no other.”