For Baylor, a second consecutive season with national title hopes will be defined by how the Bears perform in college football’s version of crunch time.
No. 7 Baylor (8-1, 5-1 in Big 12) can expect to climb a spot or two in Tuesday’s updated College Football Playoff rankings because other teams suffered losses during the Bears’ bye week. But doing enough to reach the four-team playoff bracket will depend on the Bears’ performances in their final three games, starting at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in Waco against Oklahoma State.
A year ago, the Cowboys (5-5, 3-4) turned Baylor’s season in the wrong direction with a 49-17 pasting that marked the start of a 2-2 closing stretch. Instead of top-10 acclaim in the final polls to accompany a Big 12 championship, the Bears finished at No. 13. The late fade raised questions about Baylor’s ability to play its best football in season-defining settings.
A year later, these Bears are coming off a 48-14 trouncing of then-No. 15 Oklahoma that suggests Baylor may be peaking at the perfect time during the 2014 season. Bears coach Art Briles did nothing to dampen that perspective during Monday’s news conference in Waco.
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Asked if the OU game marked Baylor’s best football of the season, Briles said: “You haven’t seen it yet.”
Instead, he expects to see something grander Saturday against OSU, and in every subsequent game, until the CFP playoff bracket is set Dec. 7.
“Politicking is winning every time we stop on the field,” Briles said. “What we’re trying to do is sustain this year.”
To a man, players acknowledge that is the primary goal. But veterans who participated in last year’s lopsided loss in Stillwater, Okla., which broke a 13-game winning streak (longest in Baylor history) would not mind if that came Saturday with a side order of payback.
“Definitely,” receiver Corey Coleman said. “We know we’ve got to go out there and play hard because they beat us last year. They’re going to come with their ‘A’ game. We’ve got to prepare and make sure we’re all on the same level and not taking any team that we have left for granted.”
That applies, in particular, to OSU.
“Oh, yeah,” defensive end Shawn Oakman said. “We’re coming out here with the mentality that we need to step it up. We stepped it up for OU but it’s even a whole different level for Oklahoma State.”
Without question, a couple of victories with style points the next two weeks against OSU and Texas Tech (3-7, 1-6) should have Baylor knocking on the playoff door when the Bears face No. 13 Kansas State (7-2, 5-1) in their regular-season finale on Dec. 6 in Waco.
By then, the Bears might have passed No. 4 TCU (9-1, 6-1) in the CFP rankings as well as on the playing field (this score just in from Oct. 11: Baylor 61, TCU 58). Either way, quarterback Bryce Petty said the Bears need to embrace every possible mental edge during their playoff push. That includes working up a good froth about last year’s loss to OSU.
“We play so much better when we’re angry,” Petty said. “So what I want to do is just stay focused, determined and a little bit mad.”
Few things elevate Petty’s blood pressure faster than memories of last year’s debacle in Stillwater. Baylor entered with a 9-0 record but trailed 35-3 after three quarters. The Bears lost three fumbles, finished 7-of-18 in third-down conversions and never were competitive with their opponent for the only time during an 11-2 season.
Now, the calendar has flipped to 2014. The venue has shifted to McLane Stadium. OSU, a title contender last season, has backtracked to the .500 mark. But Baylor is back in the national title chase, with a chance to send a Saturday message to the CFP selection committee.
Even better, in Petty’s mind, is that Baylor is coming off its best performance of the season and building toward a big finish.
“I think so,” Petty said. “The rankings are out of our control. All we can do is go out there and, every time we have a chance to win, we’ve got to win. We won’t be in any talk if we don’t win.”
Just understand that, to Baylor’s veteran players, if the next win comes Saturday against OSU, it will be a little sweeter than most because of last year’s sour experience in Stillwater.