Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Big 12 college football countdown: Baylor

The program

The history of Baylor football, while not entirely hopeless, is not one laden with success. The program, which began play in 1899, is just a shade under .500 alltime, at 532-537-44 (.498). The Bears have had 10 consensus All-Americans, and have won five conference titles, all in the venerable-but-now-defunct Southwest Conference. 

Baylor pretty much has had two successful eras: the 1920s and the 21-year Grant Teaff era, which ran from the 1970s into the early 1990s. The Bears won two SWC titles in 1922 and 1924 before going into a long hibernation. Baylor nearly won a league title in 1956, finishing second and beating No. 2 Tennessee in the 1957 Sugar Bowl, the highest-ranked team Baylor has ever defeated. Still, the conference title drought lagged on until the Miracle. 

In 1973, Baylor finished last in the SWC in Teaff's second year. But somehow, some way, crazy things started happening in 1974. The Bears had teeth. They won at Arkansas. They won at TCU. Then, on a magical November day in Waco, Baylor roared back from a 24-7 deficit against No. 12 Texas to win, 34-24. It was Baylor's first win against Texas since 1956, and it helped break Texas' seven-year stranglehold on the SWC title, propelling Baylor to its first SWC title in 50 years. That game, and the 1974 season as a whole, are known as the "Miracle on the Brazos." (Baylor is located near the Brazos River.)

Baylor also won an SWC title under Teaff in 1980, and again won the (by then imploding) SWC in 1994. However, after that, Baylor fell into another prolonged malaise. For most people of my generation, Baylor has become the lovable loser, going 18-102 in Big 12 games, by far the worst mark of any conference member. 

However, Baylor's soul is about much more than its on-field struggles in recent years (decades?). It's soul is the live bear mascot since 1915, the ancient Battle on the Brazos rivalry game with Texas A&M and the dusty old SWC. It's the school embracing its Baptist ties, playing "When the Saints Go Marching In" to rally the faithful. (As Gary Cartwright wrote in Sports Illustrated's farewell to the SWC: "Baylor fans did not make love standing up, lest God mistake the act for dancing.") It's the "Sic 'em, Bears" hand gesture and the furious efforts to beat the mighty Longhorns. And, of course, its "That Good Old Baylor Line" of students making a tunnel for the Bears to run through under the lights at Floyd Casey Stadium. All in all, not too bad. 

Best player ever

Within a year or two, it just might be current quarterback Robert Griffin III. But right now I'll take linebacker Mike Singletary, who later went on to be a famed Chicago Bears lineback and 49ers coach. At Baylor, he racked up a school-record 662 tackles, including 232 as a sophomore (single-season school record). In 1978, he had 35 tackles against Arkansas and 31 tackles against Ohio State.

He was a three-time all-Southwest Conference player, and in 1980 he helped Baylor win the SWC championship. He was also a two-time All-America player. He won the Davey O'Brien Award twice, in 1979 and 1980. (This sounds like a Paul Bunyan tale, as that award is now a national quarterback award, but back then it was awarded to the player of the year in the SWC.) Singletary is in both the college and pro football halls of fame.

2011 Outlook:

Last year was a Baylor breakthrough, as the Bears made it to their first bowl game since the 1994 Alamo bowl. Of course, since I picked the Bears to win, they were crushed 38-14 by Ron "The Zooker" Zook's mediocre Illinois team. The Texas Bowl loss came on the heels of three straight losses to Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Oklahoma (each went 6-2 in Big 12 play) to close the regular season. These four straight losses dropped Baylor to a 7-6 final record and may have cooled some of the enthusiasm following a 7-2 start.

Even still, seven wins and a bowl appearance are a big deal at Baylor, plus the team broke a 12-game losing streak to Texas with a resounding 30-22 win in Austin. Baylor actually won two Big 12 road games last year after winning three total in the first 14 years of the Big 12. One of those three was the Bears' infamous (to me) 40-32 win as two touchdown underdogs at Missouri in 2009, meaning Baylor has actually won three of its last five conference road games. What a world.

This year, Baylor will have to fight for bowl eligibility again. In a nutshell, Baylor has a dangerous, balanced offense and a defense that struggled often last year. Leading the offense is the electric junior quarterback, Robert Griffin III. Already the school's alltime passing yardage leader, Griffin completed 67 percent of his passes last year and posted a sparkling 22-8 touchdown to interception ratio. The dual-threat also ran for 635 yards and eight touchdowns. As far as protection for him, Baylor actually has one of the better offensive lines in the Big 12, lead by all-conference candidate Philip Blake, a senior center. The line also features guard Robert T. Griffin, who possesses a very different set of skills from the quarterback with the same name.

As for that offensive balance: last year, Baylor passed 471 times and ran 468 times. Also, they return five players who caught at least 40 passes last year. Leading the way are juniors Kendall Wright and Lanear Sampson. Wright, likely the school's alltime leading in receiving yardage after the first month of this season, is one of five returning receivers in the Big 12 who had at least 950 receiving yards last year. (The others: Justin Blackmon, OSU, 1,782 yards; Ryan Broyles, OU, 1,622 yards; Jeff Fuller, A&M, 1,066 yards; T.J. Moe, Missouri, 1,045 yards.)

Dealing with this impressive stable of Big 12 receivers will be Baylor's somewhat shaky defense. The Bears yielded 469 yards per game in conference play last year, and they were dead last in passing yardage allowed. Baylor will need impressive efforts from cornerback Chance Casey and a host of largely unknown defensive backs to hang in games against powerful offenses. A strong pass rush from Tevin Elliott and Co. up front would help immensely.

The big question: Can Baylor make it back-to-back bowl games? Even with the bloated bowl schedule, this is still a big deal for Baylor. Playing nine conference games and opening with a nonconference game against TCU and its ferocious defense will make this tough. The key swing games are at Kansas State on Oct. 1, and a neutral site game with Texas Tech on Nov. 26 in Dallas. If the Bears win the two "easy" nonconference games and beat Iowa State (home) and Kansas (road), they then need two more. They could pick up the two swing games, or get one and find an upset somewhere. Candidates for an upset could be Nov. 5 hosting Missouri (Baylor's Homecoming; you know how those Baptists like to party) or at A&M or Oklahoma State. I could maybe see one of these schools looking past the team they've historically dominated, which would open the door for Baylor. This is out on a limb, but I like the Baylor offense; my guess is they get to six wins and back to a bowl game.

1 comment:

  1. I remember that 2009 game very vividly. Baylor wore storm trooper unis (white pants, jerseys and helmets), Tiffany pretended to fall asleep as we watched the game from the hill and Mizzou's defense actually fell asleep. My rage against Gabbert really began with that game