Baylor football coach Art Briles showed up Tuesday with a fresh wardrobe wrinkle for Big 12 media days: a green necktie attached to an actual collared dress shirt.
For a guy who lives his life in long-sleeved T-shirts, it served as a visual connection with espoused plans to be more innovative on offense and to face more challenging non-conference opponents in future seasons.
“You can’t get predictable,” Briles said, explaining his fresh look and how that meshes with plans for more innovative play calls this season. “When you stay the same, people catch you. Criminals get caught because they do the same thing over and over again. So you’ve got to be a little different.”
After collecting Big 12 championship trophies the past two seasons, Briles has no plans for the Bears to be caught in their pursuit of a third consecutive league title. But he made it clear Tuesday that one thing will not change: the feeling of being unappreciated despite recent success.
The Bears, he said, will gladly use the fact that they were landslide choices to finish second to TCU, a team they defeated last season, in the preseason Big 12 media poll just as the Bears were picked to get lapped by Oklahoma a year ago when trying to follow up on their 2013 title.
“I guess you’ve got to win it three times in a row to get picked first,” Briles said, taking a thinly-veiled dig at TCU’s 32-10 edge in first-place votes from media members this season. “Getting chosen second, I mean, that’s OK. It’s better than getting third.”
But the slight does stoke some emotional embers for a coach and group of players who thrive on feeling overlooked and unappreciated.
“We’re never going to lose that,” Briles said, smiling broadly. “We understand … never earning respect. We want to make people know our names by our actions, by our performance on the field.”
That has been the case throughout his Baylor career, said left tackle Spencer Drango. The fifth-year senior reflected on a 2011 rant by former ESPN radio host Jim Rome, who complained that “scrubby little Baylor” needed to embrace its second-class status in major-college athletics. Rome later apologized. But Drango still draws motivation from the sentiment.
“I don’t think we are ‘scrubby little Baylor’ any more. But some people may still see us like that,” said Drango, citing the Bears’ preseason ranking as one spot below what the Bears deserved. “It’s up to us to constantly remind them and change their minds about that. That’s what we’re in the business of doing.”
If Baylor’s performance matches its potential this season, the Bears could earn the CFP playoff spot that narrowly eluded them a year ago. Baylor, an 11-2 team last season, has more returning starters (eight on offense, nine on defense) than any Big 12 team. But there will be a new quarterback, although Briles stressed that Seth Russell will not need to be a difference-maker as a first-year starter to land a playoff berth.
“He’s just got to be good. You don’t have to be great,” Briles said. “You’ve just got to be predictable. And that’s what we’ll expect out of him.”
But predictability is not a trait Briles seeks across all aspects of his offense. He’s counting on his son Kendal, the Bears’ first-year play-caller, to add some spice to this year’s attack.
“He’ll bring a very innovative, fearless type of approach to our offense,” Briles said.
In other words, the opposite approach to the 2015 non-conference scheduling strategy (SMU, Lamar, Rice). A soft September slate hampered CFP efforts last season and might again this season. Although Briles and athletic director Ian McCaw have acknowledged ongoing talks about a couple of potential upgrades to future non-conference schedules (2016 vs. California in Australia; 2020 vs. Arkansas in Houston), Briles knows he’ll be working without a safety net again this season.
“My job is to win,” Briles said. “If we line up and we win 12 games this year, we’re going to be in the (CFP’s) final four. I think you can put that in ink right now.”
Whether Baylor can produce a perfect regular-season record is anyone’s guess. It has not happened in either of the past two seasons. But the Bears, on paper, look strong enough that they placed No. 3 in the ESPN preseason power index, one spot ahead of TCU.
But media members who cover the Big 12 prefer the Frogs by a 32-10 margin in the race to win this year’s title. The Bears, rest assured, have noticed.
“It’s just their opinion,” defensive tackle Andrew Billings said. “Do we like it? No. Everybody wants to be No. 1. But it’s not that much of a surprise to me. You could kind of feel it coming on.”
Now that it’s reality, defensive end Shawn Oakman said players are prepared to follow Briles’ lead in dealing with the situation. As Oakman said: “We get most of our swagger and our style from that man. Everything we are is a reflection of him.”
Briles, for now, is preaching unpredictability on the field but with a predictable twist on the motivational front: quiet the doubters. Again this season.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760