DALLAS — After winning its first Big 12 football championship, Baylor still feels like a ragged band of rebels fighting for respect.
The Bears were picked second behind perennial power Oklahoma in the preseason media poll. The Sooners received a whopping 47 first-place votes to Baylor’s 9, even after the Bears won last year’s game over the Sooners, 41-12, in Waco.
“Being the defending Big 12 champion and being picked No. 2 is kind of a slap in the face,” said Baylor linebacker Bryce Hager at Monday’s football media day. “But it’s another thing that will motivate us.”
The Sooners return an experienced, talented team that ended the season with a 45-31 win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Baylor brings back an explosive offense led by Heisman Trophy candidate Bryce Petty at quarterback, but must replace seven senior starters from a defense that was a major factor in its school-record 11-2 season.
Probably the biggest reason Oklahoma is the preseason favorite is because this year’s rematch with Baylor is in Norman, a place the Bears have never won. But Baylor defensive end Shawn Oakman doesn’t think that playing on Oklahoma’s home turf will change the outcome of the game.
“We’re going to come out there and execute every play and read our keys, and we should be victorious just like last year,” Oakman said. “That game from last year should tell you that product was nowhere as good as what Baylor was putting on the field. The execution and players from each and every position you could tell we were on a different level from OU.”
Despite the second place prediction, the Bears understand that winning the Big 12 championship has made them a marked team that everybody wants to beat. The Bears witnessed that firsthand when heavy underdog Central Florida pulled off a 52-42 win in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Bears were beginning to believe their own hype, but Petty said they learned from that humbling experience.
“At the bowl game, we listened to what people were saying unfortunately,” Petty said. “But that won’t happen again. Things have changed for us. People want to beat Baylor. We have to know and prepare for that. I’m always going to be the hunter, and attack, attack, attack.”
Though the Bears have become one of the most successful programs in the Big 12 in the last three years, coach Art Briles believes his team is still fighting for recognition.
Briles wants his team to think like underdogs even after winning the Big 12 title.
“We still see ourselves as the guy fighting hard, scratching hard to try to get some recognition and some respect,” Briles said. “2013 is gone. That title is ours. We’re attacking 2014 just like everybody else. That’s the mindset with our players, and that’s how we’re approaching everything.”
Briles is excited to have a veteran quarterback leading the way. Playing regularly for the first time since his senior year at Midlothian High School in 2008, Petty threw for 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns while also rushing for a team-high 14 touchdowns last season.
With a year of starting experience under his belt, Briles believes Petty will be an even better quarterback and leader this season. Briles was upset that Petty wasn’t a Heisman Trophy finalist last year, but believes he’s set himself up to make a run at the award this fall.
“I certainly felt like he should have been in New York without question,” Briles said. “I mean you’re a first-year starter that wins 11 games and throws for 4,200 yards, 32 touchdowns and three picks, and you sit at home in December? Do those numbers again, and he’ll be in New York and might win it.
“His perception and image are different from a year ago because he had nothing,” Briles said. “Now he’s got substance and something people can believe. When he speaks now, people will listen. As far as what he can do this year, just win football games, and with his national name, everything will take care of itself.”
Briles expects Baylor’s defense to rebuild quickly after losing seven senior defensive starters. He anticipates that a deep, experienced defensive line could be one of the best in the country with ends Oakman and Jamal Palmer and tackles Andrew Billings and Beau Blackshear leading the way.
“I think up front we’ll be as talented and dominant as possibly anybody in the United States of America,” Briles said. “Those guys can do a great job keeping pressure off the back end. We’ve got a lot of good football players that have been there two or three years that have been waiting to play, and this is their opportunity.”
The Bears will report for fall practice Aug. 4, and are anxious to move into $260 million McLane Stadium, their new home on the Brazos. All six home games are already sold out beginning Aug. 31 against SMU.
“I’m so excited I can’t wait,” Baylor All-America receiver Antwan Goodley said. “When I first got here, people hadn’t bought in like now. Now we’ve got people behind us, and they’re excited.”