College Sports

December 8, 2013

Baylor ready for bright spotlight of BCS bowl

Briles, players envision Fiesta berth as steppingstone to bigger accomplishments.

As they spent Sunday celebrating the first BCS bowl berth in school history, members of the Baylor Bears could not help wondering what might have happened if they’d posted an undefeated record in the regular season.

Or what might happen a year from now, in the first season of college football’s four-team playoff era, if the Bears (11-1) match this season’s record in 2014 and claim another Big 12 championship.

It’s pretty compelling fodder for players and coaches at No. 6 Baylor, which meets No. 15 Central Florida (11-1) in the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl (7:30 p.m., ESPN) to cap the winningest football season in school history.

“If you get great players, everything can be a reality,” said Baylor coach Art Briles, one of 17 coaches who voted the Bears at No. 4 or higher in Sunday’s final coaches poll of the regular season. “We don’t feel like we’re at the mountaintop. Our sights are always going to be set extremely high. We’ll always have mavericks and pioneers that come into this program, because we look for people that are not afraid to go down a path no one’s ever been down. You can sense that in a person’s personality and we’ve got a bunch of them on this team.”

These Bears, who won the school’s first outright conference championship since 1980, missed out on a chance to face No. 1 Florida State (13-0) in a possible battle of unbeatens in the BCS National Championship Game because of a Nov. 23 loss to No. 13 Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Okla. Instead, Florida State will play No. 2 Auburn (12-1) for the national title on Jan. 6 in Pasadena, Calif.

But if the College Football Playoff were in place this season, it is clear from the support Baylor received in Sunday’s polls that the Bears would have been a hot topic of discussion among members of the inaugural selection committee that will seed the four participants in next year’s playoff.

Baylor’s highest placement in the coaches’ poll, No. 3, came from Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury. ESPN college football analyst Mark May, when asked to produce a mock four-team playoff bracket for the 2013 season, said he was badly torn between Baylor and Michigan State for the fourth spot before selecting the Spartans (12-1).

Bottom line: A Baylor team with identical credentials to those achieved by the 2013 squad could be part of a four-team playoff field heading into the first championship game of the College Football Playoff era, set for AT&T Stadium in Arlington on Jan. 12, 2015. An undefeated bunch of Bears could be the top seed.

Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty, who has announced plans to return for his senior season in 2014, said he is “thrilled” by this year’s BCS debut and considers a playoff berth a noble and reachable goal for next fall.

“We want Baylor to be talked about like Alabama is,” Petty said. “It’s the building of a dynasty. That’s what we want to get to.”

But if the four-team playoff was in place now, Petty said the Bears “definitely” could run the table

“We’re the best in the nation. I really feel that,” Petty said.

For now, Baylor stands as the Big 12’s best hope for a high-profile bowl victory in a postseason that includes its share of potential mismatches.

No. 11 Oklahoma (10-2) earned an at-large BCS bowl berth opposite No. 3 Alabama (11-1) in the Sugar Bowl. Texas (8-4), which fell to Baylor in Saturday’s winner-take-all battle for the Big 12 title, will meet No. 10 Oregon (10-2) in the Alamo Bowl.

Texas Tech (7-5), a team with a five-game losing streak, drew a Holiday Bowl matchup against No. 14 Arizona State (10-3), which just fell to No. 5 Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game.

Extend the focus to the entire state and Texas’ best chances for notable postseason victories come from Baylor in its first BCS appearance and No. 21 Texas A&M (8-4) in its matchup against No. 24 Duke (10-3) in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The final crystal football will be settled, appropriately enough, in a battle between the SEC champ (Auburn) and the nation’s only remaining undefeated team (Florida State).

Briles’ fondest hope is that the Bears “take care of business” in Phoenix and return as a top-5 team in the polls, positioned for a national title run in 2014. Briles made it clear he plans to be part of that despite Sunday speculation by that Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan may soon be fired, with Briles the top replacement candidate.

“I’ve had zero contact with anybody. I’m a Baylor Bear,” Briles said when asked about the report. “So that’s all I’m concerned with.”

Part of that concern involves posting a 12-1 record after returning from the Fiesta Bowl. Toward that end, Briles said he plans to keep the Bears hungry like “a little dog biting at someone’s pants leg” despite opening as a two-touchdown favorite against UCF.

Linebacker Eddie Lackey said the Bears will be ready for their big moment in the BCS spotlight.

“I believe so, 100 percent,” Lackey said. “You line us up against whoever, we’re going to do whatever we’ve got to do to beat them. I really believe that. We can play with anybody.”

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