DALLAS — For years, a longtime golf partner and former SMU football player has dropped the same joke on newcomers who join our foursomes.Especially those who follow the Big 12.Bottom line: A lifelong scoundrel takes his last breath, gets rejected at the Pearly Gates by St. Peter and descends into hell. The devil greets him wearing a parka. Everything is covered in ice.The scoundrel rubs his eyes and exclaims: “Oh, my gosh. Baylor just won the Big 12 football championship.”To his credit, Bears’ quarterback Bryce Petty laughed Monday when I shared the joke and gave him an open forum to respond. “Tell that guy to bring his parka, too,” Petty said, smiling. “He needs a different punch line.”Indeed, he does. Petty and his teammates proved Baylor football is no longer a punch line by winning last year’s Big 12 title. It marked the Bears’ first championship in league history and first in any conference since Moby Dick was a minnow (Sorry, couldn’t resist one last zinger. Actual timetable between titles: 33 years).But the clear takeaway from Baylor coaches, players and administrators who took part in Monday’s session of Big 12 media days is that the Bears remain in hot pursuit of an even bigger laugh — the ultimate laugh — at the expense of their doubters. Baylor plans to be in the inaugural four-team bracket released by College Football Playoff officials in December, with a legitimate chance to win the national championship that eluded the Bears during last year’s 11-2 campaign.“We’re swinging for the fence. That’s our mindset,” coach Art Briles said. “A pretty good starting place would be getting in the final four.”An ideal final scene, in Petty’s estimation, involves Baylor players hoisting the new CFP championship trophy in front of family and friends when the title is decided Jan. 12, 2015 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Because Baylor has returning playmakers who combined for 6,319 offensive yards last season, tops among the nation’s FBS schools, there is reason to believe the Bears could earn a title shot in JerryWorld if a rebuilt defense does enough to support another point-per-minute offense.The key player in this saga is Petty, a Heisman Trophy candidate who threw for 4,200 yards last season, with 32 touchdown passes and only three interceptions. He returns to lead a team picked to finish second to Oklahoma in the Big 12 standings, but projected among the nation’s top-10 teams heading into its Aug. 31 opener against SMU.Petty also will lead a squad convinced it has been slighted by being picked behind OU in the Big 12 media poll. The Bears plan to use that oversight as motivation this season. “If OU had won the Big 12 championship last year, they would’ve been ranked No. 1 this year [in the media poll],” said defensive end Shawn Oakman, who collected 12.5 tackles for losses last season. “In our minds, we’re still underdogs. We play with a chip on our shoulder. You only get the respect if you earn it.”Linebacker Bryce Hager said: “Last year definitely put us on the map. But we still have that hunter mentality. We’re not satisfied.”Whether Baylor can maximize this year’s potential should come down to whether the Bears can win a Nov. 8 game at Oklahoma, a venue where Baylor is winless as a football program. That’s a huge challenge.But under Briles, Baylor has done a lot of things once deemed impossible while earning four consecutive bowl berths after a 14-year bowl drought to start the Big 12 era. Quarterback Robert Griffin III won the 2011 Heisman Trophy. Today’s players are wearing Big 12 championship rings.More milestones are being added this year. Already, Baylor is sold out of season tickets in McLane Stadium, the Bears’ new home. Only 2,000 to 4,500 tickets remain for any of the team’s six games in Waco, said athletic director Ian McCaw. Clearly, expectations are through the roof.“If you go back before Art arrived, it’s been a complete transformation of the entire football program,” McCaw said. “This was the vision. He’s been the architect, the driving force, behind all of it. You’d have to argue that’s one of the best transformations in the history of college football.”But can these guys really take the ultimate step and win the school’s first national championship? Yes, says Petty. With a straight face.“Ten years ago, I would have laughed, too,” Petty said. “But it’s not a laughing matter any more. Because we’re definitely capable of winning a national championship. People can get on the ship or not. But it’s going that way.”These days, it’s the Bears doing all the laughing after seasons as a laughingstock. If Petty can replicate last year’s production again this season, don’t be surprised if Baylor winds up having the last laugh, once again, on its Big 12 peers. Maybe the rest of college football, too.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch