In a typical week leading into the Red River Rivalry, the loudest buzz on the local college football landscape would center on whether No. 12 Oklahoma should be a double-digit favorite over unranked Texas in a matchup between teams tied for first place in the Big 12 standings.
But there is nothing typical about this season for the Longhorns (3-2, 2-0 in Big 12), who escaped in controversial fashion with Thursday’s 31-30 decision at Iowa State and will play, again, without starting quarterback David Ash (head injury) in Saturday’s showdown against the Sooners (5-0, 2-0) at the Cotton Bowl (11 a.m., WFAA/Ch. 8).
Given OU’s defensive resurgence, my lone question Sunday is why the Sooners were listed merely as 11.5 point-favorites by vegasinsider.com.
The bigger question within the Big 12, and throughout college football, is about an explosive Baylor offense that continues to look unstoppable. The buzz from the Brazos trumps the anticipation of the Red River Rivalry because the Bears (4-0, 1-0) continue to post video-game production against real-world opponents, making even the prolific attack of No. 2 Oregon (5-0) look pedestrian by comparison.
Baylor climbed to No. 15 in Sunday’s Associated Press poll, one day after rolling up another round of ridiculous offensive numbers in a 73-42 rout of West Virginia that raised the team’s season scoring average to 70.5.
Oregon (59.2) ranks second among FBS schools, 10.3 points per game behind a Bears’ offense that has yet to unleash its starters for meaningful second-half duty in any contest.
As of Sunday, the Bears’ offense topped the NCAA in at least six statistical categories, including this impressive trifecta: scoring (70.5 avg.), total offense (779.5 yards per game) and yards per play (9.62).
Baylor also leads FBS schools in first downs per game (32.7), passing offense (432.3 yards per game) and yards per completion (19.9) while ranking third in rushing (347.3 yards per game).
All of those numbers increased after Baylor racked up a school- and conference-record 864 total yards in its Big 12 opener against West Virginia. The effort should quiet naysayers who focus more on the team’s soft September schedule than on the stunning swiftness with which Baylor has dispatched all of its opponents.
But it probably won’t. And that is why the focus will remain on Baylor, rather than any of the other Big 12 front-runners, as long as the Bears continue to blindside opposing defenses on a weekly basis.
Critics seek a “gotcha” moment, hoping to expose this offense as something less than prolific. Baylor loyalists envision breaking Oklahoma’s modern-day, NCAA season scoring record (716 points) set in 2008. Neutral observers are fascinated by whether a glass ceiling truly exists for coach Art Briles’ attack, which features the national leader in passing efficiency, the nation’s No. 2 rusher and the nation’s most underrated offensive line.
All of that makes Baylor the talk of college football, even with the Red River Rivalry looming, because everyone wants an answer to the same lingering question: “How good are these Bears?”
We’ll get a better idea after Saturday’s game at Kansas State (2-3, 0-2), the Bears’ first road trip of the season. Until Baylor posts some silly numbers in a hostile environment, nitpicks will continue despite the production of quarterback Bryce Petty (229.6 passer rating, 72.8 completion rate) and running back Lache Seastrunk (147.3 yards per game), a Heisman Trophy candidate who averages almost as many yards per carry (10.1) as carries per game (13.3).
The Bears’ upside is unclear. But this much is certain: Baylor deserves more respect than it is getting from pollsters and critics. The Bears received a significant vote of confidence Sunday from the BCS-affiliated Sagarin rankings, where Baylor is No. 3 nationally (94.73 power rating), behind only Oregon (101.65) and Alabama (98.54).
That’s too high, at least for now. But it’s closer to accurate than the Bears’ lowest placement (No. 22) among the 60 voters in Sunday’s AP poll. The proof will come in the stretch run, starting with a Nov. 7 matchup against OU that projects as Baylor’s first encounter with another Top 25 team this season.
Until the Bears step up in class and tackle a fellow heavyweight, Baylor will remain the great unknown of the 2013 season. Differing opinions about the Bears’ fast start make them a more compelling topic of chatter than the competitive nature of the Red River Rivalry.
Rest assured, it’s been a long time since the folks at Baylor could say that during the week of a Texas-OU game.