They may or may not know him at the Dairy Queen in Salem, Oregon, but Bryce Petty won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year. The Baylor quarterback threw for 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns last year (with a mere three interceptions), leading the 11-2 Bears to their first-ever Big 12 title and first outright crown of any kind since winning the Southwest Conference in 1980. Unranked in the polls a year ago, Petty and Baylor will take on SMU on August 31 at #10 in the Associated Press poll, the program’s highest preseason mark since 1957. They’ll also do it at the brand-new, on-campus McLane Stadium, which is already sold out of season tickets.

And yet, the Bears still have a lot to prove. Last year’s team saw its national championship hopes dashed just before Thanksgiving at the hands of Oklahoma State, then finished with a loss in the Fiesta Bowl to Central Florida. This year, Oklahoma starts out higher in the AP poll (fourth), and therefore as the Big 12 team to beat. Petty’s 2013 season also saw some individual disappointment. He rose as high as third in the unofficial Heisman Pundit Straw Poll before Baylor’s loss to OSU, but ultimately didn’t score a trip to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist (he finished seventh in the voting). For 2014, the QB starts out sixth in ESPN’s Heisman Watch (though he will likely rise one spot because of the season-ending injury suffered by Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller), while Sports Illustrated left him off its sixteen-player Heisman list entirely, opting instead for another Bears star, All-American wide receiver Antwan Goodley.

But Baylor wouldn’t be Baylor if they didn’t have to exceed expectations. If Petty and the Bears can do what they did last year—or better—he should get to New York this time. And maybe even be the second Baylor quarterback (and third Texan) to take home the trophy in the past four years.

Jason Cohen: You went to high school in Midlothian and originally committed to UT—the University of Tennessee, that is. How did you end up at Baylor?

Bryce Petty: Recruiting was . . . interesting, I’ll put it that way. I went all throughout my senior year knowing I was going to Tennessee. Then they fired [Vols head coach Phillip] Fulmer and brought in [Lane] Kiffin. And, um, I wasn’t feeling Kiffin at all. He wasn’t feeling me either. [Laughs.] That was probably part of the reason I wasn’t feeling him. 

And so I felt like the best thing for me to do was kind of put myself back on the map. Coach Montgomery [Baylor offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery] was [in touch], like, the Monday after I decommitted, saying, “You need to come meet Coach” [Baylor head coach Art Briles]. And that was basically it. Coach just had such a vision for what he wanted with the program, and I could tell right away that he was a player’s coach, that was here for the kids and not just for the paycheck. He’s football through and through. Plus it’s hard not to connect with him on a level that’s more than football. He’s a Texas guy. What you hear and what you see is what you get. He’s not going to play games with you; he’s going to be honest. And that was real big for me. With him it’s not what you want to hear—it’s what you need to hear. And I love people like that.

JC: Had you looked at other Texas schools?

BP: Well, you know, I grew up in Arkansas, and all my family is from Louisiana, so I was a big SEC guy, much more so than Big 12. Honestly, all I did was wake up Saturday morning and watch CBS. I moved here my freshman year, but I never had an attraction to Texas, never had an attraction to Oklahoma. I wasn’t necessarily looking to get out of Texas, but the SEC was what I’d grown up watching.

JC: And now, of course, we have an SEC team in the state. Have you crossed paths with Johnny Manziel at all?

BP: Yeah, I met him this spring break. The [private quarterback coach] that I work with, George Whitfield Jr., also trained him.

JC: At six foot three, 230 pounds, you’re bigger than Johnny Football, but there’s a perception with both of you that what you’ve done in college may not translate to the NFL.

BP: Perception is all about the beholder. Is it a knock? Yeah. I mean, obviously, when you’re in the “gun” 90 percent of the time, it’s going to be a knock, because not many NFL teams run [a shotgun offense]. But at the same time, the NFL is changing. Conceptually, it’s different with the NFL, as far as reads and progressions, things like that. But I’ll have, I guess, two months [between the end of college football season and the NFL scouting combine] to really figure out all that stuff.

JC: Where are you academically?

BP: I graduated [in May of 2013]. I’m doing my grad school work right now. Should be done in December if everything goes right.

JC: Last year’s team began the year unranked. Did you feel the expectations adjusting as the season went on?

BP: Honestly, I knew we were going to have a good team last year. I really did. The way that we played was incredible. To see the whole transition from my first spring here till last fall—just the mentality of kids, the way that we walk around. It was such a blast playing last year. I honestly couldn’t have had it any better. I mean, we’d like to take a couple of those losses away, but at the same time, as far as what Baylor football had been to where it is now? It is awesome to be a part of.

JC: What do you remember about Robert Griffin III’s Heisman Trophy–winning year?

BP: That was really when it started to change. Thinking, we can play with Oklahoma, we can play with Texas. You don’t walk onto the field and be like, “Man, we’re about to get crushed.” By last year, it was just, “Man, we’ve got the team to do this, so let’s go do it!”

JC: What about on campus? Three years ago you could’ve said Baylor’s a basketball school.

BP: Yeah, yeah, no doubt. Campus has changed tremendously. There’s a lot more respect. There’s a lot more pride in wearing “BAYLOR.” Because I mean, as great as being a basketball school is for some people, football is just a huge part of school. I was walking to class one day, and one of my friends was talking about how their school year goes so much better if the football season’s good. Kind of funny, but I think that’s how it is for a lot of people. And so, campus has definitely changed. There’s so much support. The whole community has been wanting to just pour into Baylor football.

JC: I guess in Austin when your team sucks you can still go down to Sixth Street and get drunk. Here the culture is a little different.

BP: Little bit.

JC: You were originally headed for a secular school, though. How much of a role did Baylor’s mission play for you?

BP: It was a big deal. I grew up in a Christian home. I wasn’t necessarily thinking going into it, “Oh, Baylor’s a Christian school, that’d be great.” But if I wasn’t here, there’s no telling where I would be. Because when you step out of that nest and come to college—if you want to go to church, you do, and if you want to sleep in, you sleep in. And normally you sleep in.

It’s been such a blessing in disguise, really. I met a guy that I do Bible study with every week, and I don’t feel that that would have happened going to a secular school. It’s not hard to find someone here that thinks the same as you, whereas I feel like if you went to another school you’d kind of have to look and try to find those Christian groups. I love it here, and I’ve grown in many ways, more so than just football or academically—spiritually as well.

JC: Do you think it plays a role for the whole team, in terms of unity and discipline?

BP: Definitely. It’s transparent, what Baylor is to us. Not only as football players but as kids going to school here. That bond that we have down in the locker room, that’s not just by coincidence. What makes a great team is that sense of camaraderie, and if you don’t have that, it’s really hard to play for each other.

JC: So while we’re on the subject of faith, tell me about some of your wristbands.

BP: I’m kind of a wristband guy. I don’t know how it started; I just started getting them. [Points.] These two are from the strength staff downstairs: “Confidence Is a Choice.” And then I have a little “Sic ’Em, Baylor Bears.” What’s probably my favorite one says, “In Jesus Name I Play.” I got that from my center last year, Stefan Huber, who got it from a girl in class. In the midst of whatever’s going on on the field, I’ll kind of look down—it’s almost accidental really—and think, “In his name I play.” It’s kind of a peaceful deal.

JC: You tweeted about your testimony at the “Crossroads” event on campus last spring. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?

BP: Honestly, that was incredible. Because I suck at public speaking. I’m terrible. As soon as I get up there I forget everything I want to say. So I was a little hesitant at first, just because, for me, I’m a very strong Christian, but at the same time, I felt guilty about things when I would sin. I felt like it was not okay to pronounce that I’m a Christian, knowing that I sin, and that guilt kept me, I guess, very distant from God.

And so, that’s kind of going back to the guy that I met, Chris, who I do Bible study with. The first probably three or four months, we just talked about God’s grace and the difference between condemnation and conviction. Condemnation is that guilty feeling, but that’s from Satan, that’s not from God. Conviction is knowing that you sin but asking for forgiveness and repenting.

I was hesitant to get in front of my peers and pronounce my faith knowing that I haven’t been perfect, but I really felt that this was God’s platform for me. So I said yes, and I typed it out, and then I wrote it out, and then I said it probably three or four times in front of people, just trying to get it right, because I wanted it to be special.

So, man, I walked up there and everything just flowed, and to me it was perfect. It was all God. It was great. I talked a little bit about the guilt part. I talked about my relationship with God. And I talked about playing and waiting. [Petty “grayshirted” for one season, then spent three years as a backup.] Waiting was hard: there was a lot of venting sessions with people. But once I really figured out that God has a plan and that God has a purpose for what I’m doing here and in my life, that’s when I really started to become a better teammate. I really took a supportive role and went full force with it. Really started to learn the game, learn what the coaches were calling, and what they were looking at, really found a purpose and a meaning in that role.

Long story. [Laughs.]

(Petty’s infamous “flip” for a touchdown in the Bears’ Fiesta Bowl loss to Central Florida. AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

JC: Since we’re back to football, you had just three interceptions in 403 pass attempts last season. Is that a testament to your decision-making, or does the offense help you not make bad decisions?

BP: It’s probably more the second one. When you have a small amount of interceptions, I feel like there are a lot of things that go into it. It’s not just the decision-making. It’s about receivers running the right routes. It’s about your lineman giving you time, to where you’re not feeling under duress. And a lot of it does have to do with the play call. That’s what I love about this offense. Coach always puts us in the best position to succeed.

JC: Was there a day you woke up last fall and realized you were a Heisman candidate?

BP: [Laughs.] No. I try not to think about that, just because there are so many things that are out of my control. Though I don’t necessarily think that losing one game should have taken me out [of contention].

It honestly came so fast that it was kind of hard to sit back and realize what was going on. To me it was crazy, because I’ve grown up watching football, especially college football, so to have my name mixed in with the Heisman Trophy was kind of surreal. Not saying that I never saw myself in that picture, but it was just so far-fetched. It took me until after the season to really be like, “Wow, that’s cool.” It was a lot of hard work and a lot of guys doing a lot of good things for me, making me look a lot better than I actually am. And it’ll be great if I’m in contention for the Heisman [this year], because that means Baylor’s doing good, and that’s ultimately what I care about.

JC: How are you preparing for the heightened expectations, both individually and as a team?

BP: If you don’t have expectations, then you’re not doing something good. I love the challenge. It’s proving people wrong, it’s proving people right—however you want to look at it.

But we’ve still got a chip on our shoulder. Last year, it didn’t end the way we wanted it to. It was to the point where we got off the bus [after losing to Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl] and had to kind of be told that we’re still Big 12 champions, because that game in Arizona kind of threw us for a loop. Not to say that we underestimated [Central Florida], I don’t want to say that. But we were coming off a really good season, and thinking, at that point, that we’re kind of the cat’s pajamas. We had spent our whole—or my whole—five years being the hunter. Well, that kind of flipped. We were the hunted, and we got shot. It stung. It stung for a while.

So there’s a fire about us, to say that it’s not a one-time thing. We want to be dominant. We want to be a dynasty really. One that, if you talk about a play-off system, you go, “Okay, it’s going to be Baylor and who else?” We want that. I think that’s where we’re going. Our expectations are bigger than everyone else’s, which is, I feel, a good thing. So now it’s just about executing and doing it.

JC: You’re talking about getting to the point where the name “Baylor” gives you the benefit of the doubt. You get ranked higher. You don’t drop out of the Heisman race from one bad game.

BP: Exactly. We want to change what people look at Baylor as. Is it just a Christian school? Is it just a basketball school? No, it’s a football school too. It’s a powerhouse. They’re in contention for the Big 12 every year, and if you’re in the contention for the Big 12, you’re in contention for the national championship.

JC: So what was bigger: beating Oklahoma, which was kind of the team’s national coming-out game, or beating Texas?

BP: Oh, man. For me it was Texas, just because of what that game meant. I mean, I didn’t want to know beforehand, what we were playing for. I had heard that Oklahoma State was losing. And then we’re coming out of the tunnel, and everybody around us is saying, “Oklahoma State just lost, and y’all are playing for the Big 12 Championship!” And to me that was like, “Holy cow!”

But what was funny about that was I never thought about it at any point in the game. Until the last snap. I took the knee, and I was like, “Man, we just won the Big 12 Championship.” That was the coolest part for me. So yeah, hands down it’s got to be Texas. Closing out Floyd Casey the way we did. It being Texas.

But it’s changing. Texas and Oklahoma are not the powerhouses anymore. It’s not just them. You’re going to have to fight for what you have. We’re willing to fight for it. I feel like that’s kind of the other persona Baylor has. People don’t want Baylor to win. I’m not saying that as an excuse or to kind of have a pat on the back or pity party, but there’s just a lot of people that don’t want Baylor to win. So if you want to be on the bandwagon, hop on. If you want to sit there and hate, that’s fine too. We’re going to still do what we do every day, and we’re going to have fun doing it.

JC: So are you going to miss Floyd Casey, or are you just excited about McLane?

BP: I’m pretty excited. I love tradition, so that part’s going to be hard. But it’s a new era for Baylor football, and as much good as there was in that place, there was a lot of bad too. I like the sense of starting fresh. And of course, new things are great. I love new toys. That’s a big new toy.

JC: The next facility after the stadium is an “athletics nutrition center.” Do you still get to go to Vitek’s for your Gut Paks?

BP: Oh, we can get our Gut Paks in there when we want to. That place is wonderful. But you’ve got to carve out about six hours, because you’re not going to be able to do anything after besides sleep.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.