Welcome to the front row, Baylor. Enjoy the ride.

The Baylor Bears enter the 2014 season as the defending Big 12 champions in football. They are picked No. 2 in the Big 12 preseason poll, but it would surprise no one to see the Bears repeat as conference champions and contend for a national championship.

I know it wouldn’t surprise me at all.

New stadium aside, the Baylor football program has made a lot of right moves over the past decade. A lot of them were behind the scenes. According to a profile published last week by Forbes magazine, Baylor Athletic Director Ian McCaw did a lot of the heavy lifting during his early years at the university, setting the stage for the hiring of current coach Art Briles. McCaw looked at the Baylor athletics program both microscopically and from 10,000 feet up and had to ask and answer some tough questions about what it was capable of achieving. No easy task, given where Baylor was in 2003.

But all that heavy lifting is certainly paying dividends now. Briles is arguably the best coach in college football (loved his comeback to Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher) and the Bears are poised to move beyond the worst-to-first storyline in a big way this year.

I grew up in Oklahoma, born into a diehard Sooner family. Our pre-meal prayer often included, “And God bless Mrs. Selmon,” a divine tribute to the mother of a star trio of Oklahoma ballplayers. OK, maybe that’s a stretch, but not by much. Being indoctrinated into a winning tradition was a rite of passage in our family. I couldn’t name half the people at a family reunion and they had no clue who I was. But we all knew Joe Washington netted minus nine yards on his legendary punt return against USC.

By the time I was 12, OU had won five national championships and the Sooners were coming off back-to-back titles. My team didn’t become good during my lifetime, it was just sort of always good.

Well, Bear fans, your children and grandchildren will be able to say Baylor has always been good, but you have the unique opportunity of witnessing Baylor’s football program “become good.” And from where I’m sitting, it’s showing all the signs of staying good.

Baylor is not a rich program — not yet rich in tradition, and despite common misconceptions, no endless pile of money from which to scoop as needed. It’s a small private college with a small alumni base compared to other major universities in the Big 12 and beyond. McCaw and his athletic department know this better than anyone and they’ve done an excellent job of crafting the program using the assets they have. Baylor’s not trying to be something it’s not, and that’s been the single biggest factor in its recent success.

When you read our Aug. 29 magazine, “I Believe: The Rise of McLane Stadium,” pay particular attention to the quotes from all of the Baylor officials. From the top down, it’s evident these folks had a clear vision about the stadium, their program and this market. They understand what it takes to compete in college football and money isn’t always the main ingredient. (It helps, however.)

Being the hunted will be a new challenge this season. I suspect if both teams are unbeaten when the Bears head into Norman Nov. 8, OU will likely set a new attendance record. The Bears will get used to those kind of scenarios soon enough. The real challenge comes later on, when expectations go up and stay up, in spite of cyclical recruiting and eventual coaching changes.

Briles likes the underdog role, but that ship’s sailing as we speak.

Beating OU helped launch this Baylor juggernaut in 2011. (Three wins in a row over the Sooners created the Miami dynasty in the 1980s.) Now, a win over Baylor can launch someone else into the upper echelon of college football. Get used to it; that’s a compliment.

I learned all I needed to know about Baylor football in November when my Sooners came to Floyd Casey Stadium and got punched in the mouth by a very disciplined, aggressive Bear defensive unit. Yes, defensive unit. Baylor is known for offense, and rightfully so, but any team that underestimates how hard the Bear defense hits is in for a rude awakening.

Baylor has become a very good football program over the past seven years. It will stay that way for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is a brand new $266 million stadium that opens in two weeks.

So welcome, Baylor fans. You’re going to be here a while, so settle in and enjoy some quality football made from scratch. The good times on the gridiron are just beginning.

We’re looking forward to Nov. 8.

Steve Boggs is editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald. Email sboggs@wacotrib.com.

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