It’s no exaggeration to say Baylor is five days away from playing its most important football game in school history.
Getting that chance says everything about the off-the-charts rise of Matt Rhule’s program from 1-11 in his debut season in 2017 to 11-1 this year. No Power 5 school has ever made such a dramatic turnaround in a two-year period.
The Bears earned their first Big 12 championship game berth against Oklahoma at 11 a.m. Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington by matching the powerful Sooners with an 8-1 conference record.
Now Baylor can set a school record with its 12th win and also earn its first Sugar Bowl berth since beating Tennessee, 13-7, on Jan 1, 1957.
That was five months before I was born. And that’s pretty ancient.
But there could be even more riding on the Big 12 championship game. More than the Bears could have fathomed as they were burying cellar dwelling Kansas, 61-6, on Saturday in Lawrence in the final regular season game.
With Auburn beating No. 5 Alabama and Wisconsin knocking off No. 8 Minnesota, the No. 9 Bears are poised to move to No. 7 when the College Football Playoff rankings are announced Tuesday.
As unlikely as it seemed last week, the Bears now have a shot to make the four-team College Football Playoff if the right dominoes fall during the upcoming conference championship games this weekend.
As good as Art Briles’ 2013 and 2014 Big 12 championship teams were, they didn’t play for the national championship. It’s something the Bears have never done.
Of course, the Bears will have to beat an 11-1 Oklahoma team to even be in the conversation.
The only two teams that appear to be CFP locks are No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 LSU, both unbeaten heading into their conference title games. At 12-0, No. 3 Clemson also looks like a shoo-in, but an unlikely loss to Virginia in the ACC championship game could put the Tigers on the fence.
Baylor needs LSU to keep rolling and beat an 11-1 Georgia team in the SEC championship game. If the No. 4 Bulldogs upset LSU, the SEC would likely earn two CFP berths.
That would set off an uproar from college football fans clamoring for the NCAA to expand from a four-team to an eight-team playoff. But that’s a debate for another day.
An 11-1 Utah squad will likely be ranked No. 5 heading into the Pac-12 championship game against Oregon while Oklahoma will probably be No. 6. If Oregon upsets Utah, Baylor’s shot at the CFP will rise exponentially.
Rhule won’t likely discuss any CFP possibilities with his team this week because he wants the Bears to focus solely on the task at hand against the Sooners.
But he won’t have to make any emotional motivational speeches to get them ready. The Bears have all the motivation they need to avenge their only loss of the season, a 34-31 decision in which Oklahoma scored 24 unanswered points in the second half to rally for the win before a hyped up crowd Nov. 16 at McLane Stadium.
“We’ve just got to play,” said Baylor safety Grayland Arnold. “OU is a good team but it’s about us. We’ve got to get back to the basics, the process and practice hard. We can’t do anything different than what we’ve been doing with our whole process and the whole journey.”
The Bears have been remarkably locked in this season for every team they’ve faced, regardless of their record. That doesn’t mean just turning it on for Saturdays. It’s been their mindset every day at practice for the last four months, and has been the key to their 11-1 season.
“That’s all we talk about,” Rhule said. “We wear shirts and we try to get them to say ‘What’s next?’ all the time, but we try to get them to live it. We’re trying to build a brand of being tough, hard working and competitive. When you’re competitive, you don’t place value on one play over another. You try to put value on everything as hard as you can get it. Having the mindset that everything is important changes your life.”
That was certainly the case against the Jayhawks.
The Bears couldn’t have been more focused as they scored two touchdowns in their first five offensive plays, including backup quarterback Gerry Bohanon’s six-yard run and Charlie Brewer’s bomb to Tyquan Thornton for a 51-yard touchdown.
While Baylor’s offense amassed 507 yards, the defense was incredibly opportunistic as Grayland Arnold, Blake Lynch, Henry Black and Zeke Brown intercepted passes. Baylor’s special teams contributed to Kansas’ turnover-fest as Ross Matiscik and JT Woods recovered fumbled punts.
This was dynamic teamwork at its best. After opening up a 34-0 halftime lead, a lot of Baylor’s starters got some much needed rest to be fresh for the Big 12 championship game while younger players got some much needed playing time.
After Brewer sat out the last 11:33 of last week’s 24-10 win over Texas after taking a hard shot to his head, Rhule protected him by designing most of the quarterback running plays for Bohanon in the first half. Brewer only carried the ball twice, and one was a sack, and was hardly touched by Kansas’ defense.
“I definitely think it’s going to help,” Brewer said. “Football is a physical sport, so no one’s 100 percent at this point. But this was probably the least game I’ve had physicality-wise. My body feels good.”
Brewer sat out the second half as Bohanon started in the third quarter before true freshman quarterback Jacob Zeno saw his first action of the season, taking advantage of the NCAA’s redshirt rule that allows players to participate in up to four games without losing their redshirt.
Rhule emptied his bench in the fourth quarter and played a lot of guys who had seen little or no playing time.
The Bears enjoyed their blowout of Kansas until they got home from Lawrence Saturday night, but now they’ve turned their attention to Oklahoma with a shot to go to the Sugar Bowl or possibly the College Football Playoff.
It’s enough to make their heads spin. But don’t worry about them losing focus. They’ll be locked in as always at kickoff at 11 a.m. Saturday.