The last time Baylor and Texas crossed paths on the football field, the winner knew it would earn a Big 12 championship.
That will not be the case at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, although both will be part of a five-team tie atop the conference standings when the seventh-ranked Bears (4-0, 1-0 Big 12) and Longhorns (2-2, 1-0) tangle in Austin. For each team, this contest offers the most significant measuring stick thus far in regard to its potential upside.
Texas, a 15 1/2-point underdog (largest for any home game during the Big 12 era), seeks to show it is past the September growing pains evident under first-year coach Charlie Strong and capable of joining the league title chase. The Longhorns took their first step in that direction with last week’s 23-0 victory over Kansas, Texas’ first road shutout of a Big 12 opponent since 2005.
Baylor wants to close in on its goal of reaching the College Football Playoff’s four-team bracket in December. The Bears, who rank 10 spots higher in this week’s Associated Press poll than they did at this juncture last season, have outscored their opponents by an average margin of 57-14. But they have drawn scorn from analysts who question the Bears’ pedigree after routing a four-team group with a combined record of 6-11.
Because they have fashioned this fast start while overcoming key injuries, Baylor players consider this squad an improvement over last year’s team that defeated Texas 30-10 on its way to a Big 12 championship and an 11-2 season.
“I think we are,” left tackle Spencer Drango said. “If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. I think we’re better, but you’ve got to prove it. It’s about doing your job. If everyone at Baylor does their job, the only team that can beat Baylor is Baylor. I believe that’s true.”
Baylor has beaten all opponents to date with and without quarterback Bryce Petty, the team’s Heisman Trophy candidate who missed one game and half of another because of two fractured vertebrae in his lower back. Petty directed last week’s 49-28 victory over Iowa State and looms as the pivotal piece in any discussion about whether these Bears, after five games, are better than last year’s team at the same juncture.
“I think that’s a fair question. I don’t know,” Baylor coach Art Briles said. “The thing that helps us this year is the level of play that Bryce brings to the table with the experience and confidence that he has right now. We didn’t have that a year ago. But we know that every week from now on is going to be a test. Every game’s virtually a toss-up when you get into conference play and we understand that.”
Not in the estimation of Texas defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, who weighed in with lavish praise of Petty (“the kid’s special”) and Baylor’s point-per-minute offense. Bedford surmised that the Bears probably deserve to be favored by three touchdowns, although his comments clearly included some gamesmanship.
“I haven’t seen anyone stop them,” Bedford said. “If it was up to me, nobody would show up for the game. I’d wave the white flag. I’ve got to be honest. You talk about not sleeping, not eating? Trying to defend these guys, it does it all to you.”
Reality check: Other than a 41-7 loss to Brigham Young, when the Texas defense received minimal help from an offense in transition, Bedford’s troops have more than held their own this season. Texas has allowed just 9.0 points per game in its other three contests, including a 20-17 loss to No. 8 UCLA at AT&T Stadium.
Strong acknowledged the dubious quality of Baylor’s opponents “gives us a little hope” that Texas can apply the brakes to an offense averaging 641 yards per game and 7.3 yards per play. He also left open the possibility that two suspended starters who have yet to play in a game this season, receiver/kick returner Daje Johnson and offensive tackle Desmond Harrison, might return against Baylor.
Texas receiver John Harris made it clear the Longhorns do not feel like prohibitive underdogs, despite oddsmakers’ projections.
“You’ve always got to feel like you have a chance. If you don’t feel like that, then you’ve already defeated yourself,” said Harris, who leads the Longhorns in receiving yards (336) and touchdown catches (four). “People have doubted us all year. People doubted us last year. We’re not worried about what anybody else says. They’re still Baylor … We’re still Texas.”
Historically, the Longhorns hold a 74-25-2 edge in the series, including victories in 10 of the past 11 meetings in Austin. But Baylor has won three of the past four games, including last year’s title-clincher in Waco. In that one, the Bears limited the Longhorns to 217 total yards, a standard defensive coordinator Phil Bennett is unsure his unit can match without safety Ahmad Dixon, now a rookie with the Chicago Bears.
“There’s a mind-set that Ahmad gave us last year that I’m still looking for. A toughness,” Bennett said. “I need someone else to step up and be that take-charge guy … Are we better this year? That is yet to be determined.”
At this juncture, the same holds true for Texas.
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