Baylor seeks exclamation point to breakthrough season

Posted Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Win or lose, No. 6 Baylor will wrap up the best football season in school history by making its BCS bowl debut against No. 15 Central Florida in Wednesday’s Fiesta Bowl.

But these Bears (11-1), who claimed the school’s first Big 12 football championship, will not be satisfied unless they become the first Baylor team to post a 12-win season and finish as the highest-ranked squad in school history in the postseason college football polls.

Baylor can assure itself of those things by knocking off UCF (11-1) in Glendale, Ariz. But a loss to the Knights, fellow BCS newbies who enter as 16.5-point underdogs, would take a lot of luster off Baylor’s breakthrough season.

Avoiding such a downer is paramount to players in the estimation of quarterback Bryce Petty, who directs an offense that leads the nation in scoring (53.3 points per game) and total yards (624.5).

“We’ve got to go out and prove that we’re the best,” Petty said in a recent interview. “It doesn’t matter how many points we’re favored by. It’s about proving to everyone that we belong. It’s about respect. We want Baylor to be talked about like Alabama. That’s where we want to be.”

Baylor probably would join No. 3 Alabama (11-1), a team with three BCS national titles in the past four seasons, among the nation’s top five teams in the final polls if both schools win their bowl games. If so, it would mark a program milestone. Baylor’s lone Top 10 finish came in 1951, when the Bears were No. 9 in the AP and coaches polls.

How important is it to these Bears to maximize their breakthrough season?

“It’s really important,” said running back Lache Seastrunk, the team’s leading rusher (1,060 yards, 11 TDs). “We’ll be 12-1. That’s the best in Baylor history. That speaks for itself.”

The Bears have put themselves in this position with balance, ranking among the nation’s top 19 teams in total defense (No. 17, 344 yards per game) and scoring defense (No. 19, 21.2 points) to accompany a record-setting offense. Baylor’s turnover margin, plus-11, is No. 13 among FBS teams.

All of it marks the culmination of a six-year rebuilding effort by coach Art Briles, who inherited a program coming off 12 consecutive losing seasons when he took the Baylor job in December 2007. As the Bears prepare to represent their league as an outright conference champion for the first time in 33 years, Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw said the buzz surrounding the team’s Fiesta Bowl appearance is unmatched during his 10-year tenure at the school.

“This is really a once-in-a-generation type opportunity for Baylor,” McCaw said. “I’ve never seen Baylor alumni as engaged, and Baylor students as engaged, as they are right now. … The Baylor brand has never been as strong as it is right now. We’ve got a lot of horsepower behind us.”

Briles credits a roster filled with “mavericks and pioneers” for helping Baylor achieve unmatched football success in 2013. Until this year, the school’s record for single-season victories was 10, set in 1980 and duplicated in 2011. These players, said Briles, were recruited because they were “not afraid to go down a path that no one’s ever been down” and Briles indicated that approach will continue as Baylor attempts to use 2013 as a springboard to bigger accomplishments in the future.

“We’re still climbing to be a respectable program, year in and year out. We don’t just want to sustain,” Briles said. “It would be a big step for us to go and take care of business and have an opportunity to start pretty high next year in the polls.

“Baylor has never been in that situation before. Who knows when the next opportunity is going to come? When you have the opportunity to do something, you need to take full advantage of it. Our guys are wanting to get a T-shirt that says, ‘BCS Bowl Champs.’ But you can’t order it unless you do that. So we’d like to order a shirt that says that about Baylor.”

After decades of trying, Baylor is four quarters away from placing that order. Although some fans and analysts wonder about the Bears’ potential overconfidence heading into Wednesday’s matchup, Petty declared those concerns unfounded. He cited Briles as a leader who will keep the team grounded and hungry throughout its BCS bowl debut.

“I think championship teams all have a different mindset, a different way of thinking that sets them apart,” Petty said. “It starts from the head guy. Coach Briles, I don’t think, has ever been relaxed in his life. He’s always got a chip on his shoulder and that trickles down to the players. When you’ve got leadership like that, it’s pretty hard to shy away from a guy that has such determination and a hunger for success.”

If that hunger surfaces in the Fiesta Bowl, the Bears should be well-positioned to cap the winningest season in school history with the first BCS bowl victory in school history.

No. 15 UCF vs. No. 6 Baylor

7:30 p.m. Wednesday, University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.

TV: ESPN

Records: UCF 11-1, 8-0 American; Baylor 11-1, 8-1 Big 12

Key points: Both UCF and Baylor are hoping to make history in the Fiesta Bowl. Baylor had never won 11 games in a single season before this year, and UCF is hoping to claim the first 12-win season in program history. Baylor is the heavy favorite, however. UCF edged Louisville 38-35 on Oct. 18 and won its final two games, against USF and SMU, by a combined seven points. The Bears dominated in their wins, scoring 53.3 points a game to lead the nation. Quarterback Bryce Petty has 3,844 passing yards and an incredible 30 passing touchdowns and just two interceptions. His top target is Antwan Goodley, who has 67 catches for 1,319 yards and 13 touchdowns. Lache Seastrunk leads the Bears in rushing with 1,060 yards and 11 touchdowns. Baylor’s lone stumble came in a 49-17 blowout loss at Oklahoma State. UCF will have to either slow down or keep up with the Bears offense. UCF is scoring 33.2 points a game and will rely on quarterback Blake Bortles (3,280 passing yards and 22 touchdowns) and running back Storm Johnson (1,015 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns).

Tarrant ties: Baylor redshirt freshman linebacker Aiavion Edwards, who has 20 total tackles (3.5 for loss), played for Stephenville. Senior kicker Aaron Jones went to Crowley, defensive ends Suleiman Masumbuko (So. with 16 tackles) and Brian Nance (Fr.) played at Euless Trinity, freshman linebacker Xavier Phillips went to All Saints Episcopal School, freshman receiver Robbie Rhodes (10 catches for 157 yards) played for Fort Worth Southwest, senior offensive lineman Cyril Richardson went to North Crowley, and redshirt freshman receiver Andy Ritter came out of Mansfield Legacy.

-- Brent Shirley

Baylor vs. UCF

7:30 p.m. Wednesday

TV: ESPN

Baylor’s defining numbers

CategoryStat (Rank)
Scoring Offense53.3 (1)
Total Offense624.5 (1)
Scoring Defense21.2 (19)
Total Defense344.0 (17)
Turnover MarginPlus-11 (13)

Head to head

CategoryBaylorUCF
Points per game53.333.2
Total offense624.5432
Pass offense359.3280
Rush offense265.2152
3rd down conv.46.7%48.3%
Points allowed21.219.6
Total defense344346.3
Pass defense207.8229.8
Rush defense265.2152
Def. 3rd down conv.32.9%40.2%

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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