There is an ever-growing stack of evidence regarding Baylor's football program. A Heisman Trophy. Three consecutive bowl trips, a first in school history. And across the Brazos River, just north of campus, a new state-of-the-art football stadium will be ready for 2014.
Art Briles can see the stadium's rise, but …
"I haven't (visited), not once," the Bears' coach said. "I probably will not until it's complete. When we get in there and get going, that's when we'll get going. But right now we have other things to take care of."
That would be this season, a season that Baylor believes could see it emerge as legitimate threat to win the Big 12 Conference championship.
From their practice fields, the Bears can see the ongoing construction. As they close out the Floyd Casey Stadium Era, they're excited about the upward mobility a new stadium brings.
"Exactly. Definitely," said junior quarterback Bryce Petty, who follows in the footsteps of Heisman winner Robert Griffin III and record-setting Nick Florence. "Everything's changing. We're always improving, always wanting to get better. It just makes us more hungry to get more and more things."
Baylor was picked to finish fifth in the Big 12 and received two first-place votes – something that had never happened in previous preseason polls. Sports Illustrated's preseason top 25 has Baylor No. 17. the team's highest perch in any preseason ranking.
"A lot of people are sleeping on us," receiver Antwan Goodley said. "But that's great. That's what we want. That's what we like, to prove a lot of people wrong."
The confidence and excitement is building within the program. The Bears won five of their last six games last season. Their maligned defense showed vast improvement over that stretch and seven starters return on that side of the ball.
Briles' offense routinely produces productive offensive players. Petty, in his fourth season in the program, is expected to keep the offense rolling even though he has never started a game.
"I've waited and earned and grown and now it's time to put all of that stuff to the test and prove what I can do," Petty said.
Running backs Lache Seastrunk – who in the off-season said he planned to win the Heisman Trophy – and Glasco Martin are both capable of gaining 1,000 yards. The Bears must replace top receiver Terrance Williams, but a year ago they had to replace top receiver Kendall Wright and Williams filled the void. Godley, Tevin Reese and freshman Robbie Rhodes are among the talented pass catchers on the roster.
The defense was next to last in the country in yards allowed in 2012. That's the unit that has the skeptics smirking about Baylor making a run at the top of the Big 12. But if the Bears can continue the defensive improvement they showed while winning five of their last six, skepticism might disappear.
"Everybody looks at everything different now," Baylor senior safety Ahmad Dixon said. "The highlight of my freshman year was beating UT. Now we talk about going to bowl games and winning them and beating the No. 1 team in the nation. We talk about the season as a whole and not one particular game."
Coach: Art Briles, 33-30 in six seasons.
2012: 8-5 overall, 4-5 in Big 12, tied for 5th.
Bowl: Defeated UCLA, 49-26, in Holiday Bowl.
Returning starters: 6 on offense, 7 on defense.
Key players: Junior QB Bryce Petty, junior RB Lache Seastrunk, senior RB Glasco Martin, senior WR Tevin Reese, senior K Aaron Jones, junior LB Bryce Hager, senior LB Eddie Lackey, senior DB Ahmad Dixon, senior LB Sam Holl, senior DE Chris McAllister, senior OG Cyril Richardson, junior WR Levi Norwood.
Three Key Questions
1. Will Bryce Petty keep the offense rolling?
Briles has a history of developing quarterbacks. Also, the Baylor offense is designed to have the ground game carry more than half the production load. Petty has had four years to learn the offense and has watched Heisman winner Robert Griffin III and Nick Florence – who as a replacement for RG3 set a school single-season record for passing yardage.
2. Will the defense continue to improve?
If the second half of last season is factored in, the answer is yes. Veteran defensive coordinator Phil Bennett is in his third season in Waco and his players have a complete grasp of his system. Baylor also has depth in addition to talent on the defensive side. Sophomore defensive end Shawn Oakman, a transfer from Penn State, could be a different maker up front.
3. Can the offensive line jell?
Right tackle Troy Baker suffered an ACL injury during spring practice. His recovery is ahead of schedule and the junior is expected to return for Baylor's Big 12 opener on Oct. 5. Baker's injury forced the offensive line to shuffle its manpower so there might be a time of adjustment once the season starts. Regardless, senior guard Cyril Richardson is an All-American candidate.
Senior running back Glasco Martin broke his right ankle in the spring and is still rehabilitating the injury. He's expected to be ready for the season opener. … Briles says that junior receiver Antwan Goodley is "set for a breakout season, no doubt." … Senior offensive lineman Stevan Huber is the starting center. His father played center for the Texas Longhorns in the 1970s. … Baylor has won 14 Big 12 games the last three seasons. That matches the total number of wins for the school in its previous 14 Conference seasons. … Freshman receiver Robbie Rhodes, who Briles said was the best high school receiver in the country and was ranked the No. 2 receiver in the 2013 recruiting class by one scouting service, had 37 touchdown passes his final two seasons at Fort Worth Southwest.
Numbers To Note
Baylor is the only team to rank in the top 25 nationally in both rushing and passing the past three years is Baylor, and the last two years the Bears were among the top 14 in each category. … Junior running back Lache Seastrunk averaged 7.7 yards per carry. He gained over 800 yards on the ground in Baylor's last six games. … Junior linebacker Bryce Hager led the Big 12 with 124 tackles last season.
|Oct. 5||West Virginia*|
|Oct. 12||at Kansas State*|
|Oct. 19||Iowa State*|
|Oct. 26||at Kansas*|
|Nov. 16||vs. Texas Tech* (at AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas)|
|Nov. 23||at Oklahoma State*|
|Nov. 30||at TCU*|