During his seven seasons at Baylor, Art Briles has piled up a list of accomplishments that are unprecedented in school history.
He’s produced two straight Big 12 champions, five straight bowl teams and the Bears’ first Heisman Trophy winner in Robert Griffin III. The Bears have won a school-record 40 games in the last four seasons after winning just 39 games in the previous 13 seasons.
There’s not much question the last five years have been the greatest era in Baylor football history.
When high school and college players think of Baylor now, they don’t remember the dark days before Briles when the Bears were mired at the bottom of the Big 12. Opposing players’ memories of the Bears are all positive.
“RG3 is what I remember,” said Michigan State running back Jeremy Langford earlier this week. “They score a lot of points.”
Briles’ success came relatively quick as he produced a winning season in just his third year at Baylor. But it has been a step by step process by a coach with a vision, and there’s been nothing fluky about it.
The next step Baylor must take is winning a major bowl after coming tantalizingly close on New Year’s Day.
After their Big 12 championships, the Bears have been unable to cap off great seasons with bowl wins. They were unfocused coming into last year’s Fiesta Bowl against heavy underdog Central Florida, and paid the price with a 52-42 loss.
The Bears were highly motivated coming into Thursday’s Cotton Bowl against Michigan State, and played inspired football for three quarters.
They unveiled one of the most colorful performances in the 79-year history of the bowl as 400-pound LaQuan McGowan caught a touchdown pass from Bryce Petty while wide receiver Jay Lee threw the first touchdown pass of his career on an option play.
After building a 41-21 third-quarter lead, the only question seemed to be how lopsided the game would become. But everything fell apart in the fourth quarter as the Bears missed two field goals, were flagged for two crucial penalties and allowed too many Michigan State receivers to get open on key downs.
While some fans will single out Baylor’s defensive lapses, this was truly a team collapse. A perfect storm of events had to happen for Michigan State to outscore Baylor, 21-0, in the fourth quarter to pull off a 42-41 win.
If Taylor Young’s interception return for a touchdown hadn’t been called back because of an illegal block . . . If wide receiver Corey Coleman hadn’t been called for an offensive facemask penalty inside the 10 . . . If Chris Callahan’s first field goal attempt of the fourth quarter hadn’t bounced off the upright or his last kick hadn’t been blocked . . .
If just one of those plays had gone the Bears’ way, they would have won.
“Just so many missed opportunities here and there,” Petty said. “You’ve got to kill momentum when it starts for them to build, and we didn’t do it.”
Give Michigan State credit because it’s an experienced team what has won 53 games over the past five seasons under Mark Dantonio. The Spartans certainly know how to pull out close bowl games as they’ve won their last four appearances by a combined nine points including a 24-20 win over Stanford in last year’s Rose Bowl.
They’ve been there and done that. But that didn’t make the Bears feel any better in a devastated locker room.
“These kids hurt,” Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said. “I told them they’re going to be hurting worse than anyone in this stadium. If you’re a Baylor fan you’re going to be hurting, but not like these kids are. They’re invested — blood, sweat and tears. But when you’re invested, you try to correct things.”
Make no mistake, the Bears are built for long-term success as a ton of talent returns next season.
With 18 starters coming back, the Bears will likely open next season as a top 10 team. After All-America offensive tackle Spencer Drango and defensive end Shawn Oakman announced they will come back for their senior years, Baylor’s offensive and defensive lines will return intact.
With Petty gone, fourth-year junior Seth Russell is poised to step in at quarterback, and he’ll have plenty of gifted running backs and receivers surrounding him. The defense will have to replace all-Big 12 linebacker Bryce Hager and nickelback Collin Brence, and the secondary will need to get much better, but it will be a more experienced unit.
There are still many goals to reach for Briles’ program. But whether the Bears are in the College Football Playoff of elsewhere next season, winning a major bowl game has to be at the top of the list.