By Michael Haag | Sports Editor
This Bears team finished the regular season 6-6 overall to pair with a 4-5 Big 12 record. It’s not quite like the historic 12-win season that transpired in 2021, but it’s clear this is a much different group than that seen this time last year.
The biggest issue has been finishing games, as the squad has held leads in the fourth quarter of both of its last two games. But in the end, the opposition prevailed, with No. 3 (AP) Texas Christian University winning on a walk-off field goal and No. 21 (AP) University of Texas scoring 14 unanswered fourth quarter points to put the Bears away.
Head coach Dave Aranda calls it “a mindset” and said being able to finish the game is critical. The 2021 Baylor team had that ability, as it went 4-1 in games decided by one score or less.
“You know it when you have it because there’s an energy and a look in the eye when you have that,” Aranda said. “It comes from a confidence and a trust. It comes from a belief. So, I think we’ve had instances of that throughout this year where we’ve been able to finish, if it’s an Oklahoma game or an Iowa State or that.
“But we have to be able to be consistent. We just have not. If there’s 11 guys, there are nine that are on it and two that ain’t. Or 10 that are on it and one that ain’t. So, that’s the battle we have right now.”
After winning two consecutive tough road games against Texas Tech University and the University of Oklahoma, Baylor sat at 6-3 with full control of its destiny regarding making it back to the Big 12 championship game.
But a three-game losing streak to ranked opponents put that talk away in a hurry. Now, the Bears don’t get to be picky, as they are likely headed to one of these select bowl games:
Houston’s Texas Bowl, Fort Worth’s Armed Forces Bowl, Dallas’ First Responder Bowl, Phoenix’s Guaranteed Rate Bowl or Memphis’ Liberty Bowl.
The earliest bowl game would be the Armed Forces Bowl at 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 22. The latest date would be the Texas Bowl, which is scheduled Dec. 28 at 8 p.m.
Fifth-year senior tight end Ben Sims said the up and down season has been a result of not being able to fend off opposing blows.
“I feel like a couple times this season, it’s about us getting knocked down and being able to get back up,” Sims said. “And every time we get back up, it’s not always necessarily the outcome we wanted. Last week, we had TCU on the ropes. And this week, we had an opportunity to close out a game and we couldn’t do it. It’s about being able to get back up and throw that next punch. And that’s just something we couldn’t do.”
The team rode into the season with sky-high expectations after the media predicted Baylor to repeat as conference champions. But an underwhelming season ensued, and Aranda has found a few noticeable issues as to why success isn’t developing.
“I think a lot of that is the trust in your teammates, trust in the scheme and the design and the call, the work we put in, all of it,” Aranda said. “To do your 1/11th and not try to do the team’s one-half, whatever it is. The pressing and everything happens when pressure seeps in and kind of creates abnormal behavior.”
To Aranda, that “pressing” or “trying to make a play when it’s not your play” has been one of the biggest issues among this team. Sims bounced off this and added that “our potential is so much better when we can do simple better.”
How does the team get to the point where it’s doing its 1/11th or “doing simple better?” Sixth-year senior linebacker Bryson Jackson said it starts with the veterans setting the example for the next couple of weeks, as the squad has around a month until its bowl game.
“It’s definitely important that our leaders stay together and keep this team tight,” Jackson said.
The benefit of the upcoming timeline is that Aranda and the staff can slow things down and spend more time on the fundamentals. With the rapid-fire tempo of the season, this month will be treated much more like fall camp, with more time to perfect the little things the Bears are preaching.
“The ability to have a little bit of time off from all of it and to kind of get the appetite back to kind of go again and put yourself out there and all of that is way important,” Aranda said. “And once we do that — as both players and staff — then it’s the ability to kind of focus in on these things that we’re bringing up. Because, for sure they’re going to come up in this bowl game. And so, we’d love to be at our best in this game. And so, that’ll be a focus.”
Even beyond the current state of the team, Aranda will utilize the extra time to let the future begin to take shape.
“But then I think that the opportunity to get our young players reps and make it competitive and kind of build for the future is also part of it,” Aranda said. “So, I feel like we can do both.”