Baylor Rises From Unheralded to Ranked and Bowl Eligibility
The Bears became bowl eligible Saturday for the first time in 16 years, they sit atop the ultra-tough Big 12 South and they entered the Top 25 on Sunday for the first time since 1993. Baylor sits at No. 25.
Would you believe this was all part of Baylor's plan three years ago? Well, that is exactly what sophomore quarterback Robert Griffin III would have us believe.
"Our motto since coach (Art) Briles and our strength coach (Kaz Kadadi) got here has been: it's a Big 12 takeover," Griffin said Monday.
The jury is still deliberating on just how much of a takeover the Bears will make, especially with back-to-back road games at Texas and Oklahoma State on the immediate horizon and then a home game against Oklahoma to end the regular season.
But right now, it has to be a good time to be the Baylor Bears. The crowd at Floyd Casey Stadium stormed the field Saturday after the Bears held off Kansas State, 47-42, to guarantee their first bowl trip since joining the Big 12 as a charter member in 1996. The accolades didn't stop there, however.
The wave of good will continued Sunday when the Bears jumped into the Top 25 for the first time since a one week stay on Sept. 5, 1993.
Talk about a major turnaround for a program that seemed to hold a permanent spot at the bottom of the Big 12 South for much of the last 14 seasons.
"We've etched our name in stone because of the drought that we had," said Griffin, who has been a major catalyst in the turnaround. "Fifteen or 16 years is a very long one. For the team that did it, they may not remember our names individually, but they definitely will remember the team that overcame everything."
But interestingly, the Bears insist they are not finished. They came out of last weekend with a half-game lead over Oklahoma and Oklahoma State for first place in the Big 12 with a 6-2, 3-1 mark.
Baylor could make a major statement this Saturday when it travels to Austin to take on a Texas team that is reeling from a stunning upset at home to Iowa State. The Longhorns have lost three of their last four games, including consecutive home losses to teams rated well below them.
They Bears, however, enter Saturday's showdown against the traditional power program ranked in the Top 25 while Texas (4-3, 2-2) has fallen out of the rankings for the second time this season. The last time these teams met when Baylor was ranked and the Longhorns weren't was Nov . 22, 1986. The Bears won that game in Waco.
Baylor last beat Texas in 1997, which was the Longhorns last season under John Mackovic.
"As you know nationally, anything is possible of happening," Briles said when asked about the opportunity his team has in front of it against UT. "So all we concentrate on is going out and focusing on what we can do as a football team on that day within those 60 minutes to have an opportunity to win the football game.
"That is what our focus has been all year, us becoming better and understanding more about what it takes to play at the level we need to play at to have opportunities for success."
Still, there is a feeling of confidence around the program that is unlike any in recent years as the Bears head into their annual game against the primary in-state school. With running back Jay Finley and Griffin leading the way, the Bears offense has put up impressive numbers the past couple of weeks.
They see no reason to stop just because mighty Texas is up next.
"We're a hot team right now," said Griffin. "We are playing with a lot of confidence offensively, and defensively we're coming up with a lot of big stops when we need them. The final score of the (Kansas State) game made it look a lot closer than it was, but we got up on them and put them away in the third.
"It is what it is. We are doing a good job of going out and playing, and Texas is coming off a loss to Iowa State at home, which is embarrassing to them, so we know they will be mad. But it's not our job to focus on them. Mack Brown will have those guys ready and coach Briles will have us ready."
As much as Briles is insisting that his team not look at ahead and that it stays in the moment, it's hard for even the head coach to not soak up the importance of this moment and what this could mean for a program that has had little to be excited about in years.
"It's certainly a breath of fresh air," Briles said. "It allows us to approach everything we do for the program from a different mindset by being a bowl eligible team and by being a team that is getting some respect on a regional/national level. That part of it brings added energy and then added responsibility. We're just trying to really focus on what we can do to play cleaner football games."
UT coach Mack Brown certainly understands this is not the Baylor team he has been accustomed to dominating.
"They lost a couple early games, one to TCU and one to Tech, but they are playing much better now than they have at any time," said Brown, who has never lost to Baylor. "They've won three Big 12 games in a row. They are very impressive. I think they are deserving of a higher ranking than they've got."
Briles appreciates the kind words, but he certainly isn't about to be lulled into believing he has an automatic edge over the Longhorns, or that suddenly the football world has been realigned with his team on top and Texas looking up.
"We're in a position where we have a tremendous amount of respect for every opponent that we play because we know we have to be at the top of our game each week to give ourselves the best chance to win," Briles said. "What they've gone through and what we've gone through makes no difference on Saturday. It's still going to come down to who makes the plays and who takes care of their responsibilities determines who wins the football game."