While the state’s preseason college football hype was focused on—as usual—the University of Texas and Texas A&M, the Bears were expected to finish sixth in the Big 12. Once arguably the best team in the conference under head coach Art Briles, it turned out to be also the most disgraceful. Baylor went 1-11 in 2017, its first post-scandal season, as well as its first under head coach Matt Rhule. Last year, Rhule got them to 7-6.
Now the Bears are 9-0 and leading the Big 12, though they still haven’t impressed the College Football Playoff brain trust, which has Baylor ranked thirteenth, behind six 8-1 schools and a pair of two-loss SEC teams.
If the CFP is wrong, we’ll find out soon enough: Baylor hosts number-ten Oklahoma Saturday, in a prime-time game that’s also bringing ESPN’s GameDay to the Brazos. One week later, UT is in town. But whatever happens in those games, at the moment, Baylor is the best team in Texas.
Any questions? We have ten of our own.
1. How did this happen so fast?
Mostly, Baylor hired the right coach (ask Florida State and Arkansas what happens when you get the wrong one). On the surface, Rhule was seemingly miscast. He’s a New York City and State College, Pennsylvania, native (and former Penn State player) who was previously at Temple University in Philadelphia. But he’s also the son of a Nazarene minister, and being at Temple meant he already knew what it was like to recruit in the shadow of bigger programs. As Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger wrote last month, Rhule also boosted his Texas bona fides by purchasing a Chevy Silverado pickup. More importantly, he rounded out his staff with proven high school coaches from Cedar Hill, Reagan (San Antonio), and Cedar Ridge (Round Rock).
2. Was it supposed to happen this fast?
Not really. “I don’t know if we’re ready for that,” Rhule told Max Olson of The Athletic before the season, referring to a possible Big 12 championship. “I don’t know if it’s another year away or two years away.”
But here we are. The Bears are still doing it with former Lake Travis High School quarterback Charlie Brewer, who was the Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year even in that 1-11 season. Except now they’re also doing it with defense.
Baylor’s signature game under Briles, in 2014, was a 61-58 win over TCU—in regulation. Last year the Bears lost to Oklahoma, 66-33, and to West Virginia, 58-14. This year, led by linebacker Terrell Bernard (68 tackles) and defensive lineman James Lynch (8.5 sacks), they’re allowing an average of just nineteen points per game. Baylor also leads the nation in blocked field goals, including one late in the fourth quarter of a 17-14 win over West Virginia.
The Bears are also doing it by the skin of their teeth (claws?). In addition to West Virginia, there have been narrow wins over Iowa State (23-21, on a John Mayers field goal as time expired), Texas Tech (33-30, in overtime), and even Rice (21-13). Last week against TCU was an offensively futile and mistake-prone effort—muffed punt receptions, bad passes, penalties—that found the Bears trailing 9-6 when Mayers kicked a career-long 51-yard field goal with 36 seconds left, setting the stage for Baylor’s three-overtime, 29-23 win.
3. Wait, their kicker is “John Mayers”?
Yes. The jokes have already been made.
— dusty ware (@6pk_of_light) December 28, 2018
4. Is the College Football Playoff screwing them?
Baylor is the lowest-ranked 9-0 team in the history of the College Football Playoff. They just dropped from twelfth to thirteenth in the rankings (and eleventh to twelfth in the AP poll), mostly as a result of Minnesota’s win over Penn State, which elevated the Gophers, a team that’s also 9-0, from seventeenth to eighth.
Dallas sportswriter, radio host, and Baylor alumnus Matt Mosley thought the AP voters didn’t give the Bears enough credit for winning a tough rivalry game—the “Revivalry”—on the road. But ESPN’s Sam Khan noted that all the one-loss teams ahead of Baylor in the AP poll have played a more difficult schedule, while CFP committee spokesman and Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens (whose own team is ranked sixth) cited the Bears’ weak nonconference schedule (Stephen F. Austin, UTSA, and Rice, with just six wins between them) as an issue.
Anyway, it’s a moot point. If the Bears win out, they’ll make the top four. We can argue about how they (or Oklahoma) might get screwed as a one-loss Big 12 champion (which would be a bit of 2014 déjà vu) another time.
5. So can they beat Oklahoma?
Of course not. The Sooners opened as a twelve-point favorite on the road. Their Jalen Hurts–led offense is a juggernaut. Baylor isn’t tested. It will all catch up to them on Saturday.
That’s what we would have said two weeks ago, with 7-0, fifth-ranked OU coming off big wins over Texas and West Virginia. Since then, the Sooners have lost to Kansas State, 48-41, and squeaked out a 42-41 home win over Iowa State (the Cyclones tried and failed to end the game with a two-point conversion instead of taking the extra point to tie it).
So, yes. Oklahoma can be beat. Oklahoma can be scored on. Baylor can play defense. Either way it comes out, the two teams may play yet again in December’s Big 12 championship game (just as the Sooners and Longhorns matched up twice last season).
6. Are they the best team in Texas?
If you’re sure the answer is “yes,” you probably went to Baylor. If you’re sure the answer’s “no,” you probably went to UT, A&M, or SMU.
In reality, we’ll never know. Baylor could still finish anywhere from 13-0 to 9-3. If they beat Texas, they are obviously the best Big 12 team in the state. It’s just too bad the bowl system is such that there aren’t many scenarios where they could play A&M, a long-hated rival (the Aggies are 6-3, with a schedule that includes four of the top five College Football Playoff teams, as well as number-twelve Auburn), or SMU (9-1, and also unloved by the College Football Playoff, which dropped the previously number-25 Mustangs out of this week’s ranking).
7. Sounds like Matt Rhule ought to have a shot at NCAA Coach of the Year. Can Baylor keep him?
He’ll probably lose the award to LSU’s Ed Orgeron. Unlike in the pros, it tends to be given to championship winners rather than overachievers. But, yes, Baylor can keep Rhule. Even before this season, he was sought by NFL teams, and he clearly has some interest in coaching at the game’s highest level. His name has also been floated for the USC and Florida State jobs. A more threatening possibility might be if USC (which hasn’t yet fired Clay Helton) poached James Franklin from Penn State, clearing a path for Rhule to coach his hometown school and alma mater.
But that scenario would cost Penn State. Rhule signed a contract extension in September, locking him up at Baylor until 2027. According to Waco radio host David Smoak, the deal includes one of the five biggest buyouts in college football.
8. What’s up with that hoodie/vest/apron thing Rhule wears?
No clue. Anyone?
— Josh Lassiter (@joshlassiter) October 13, 2019
9. Should I still feel icky about Baylor as an institution?
You should feel icky about all college football! This week, it’s Texas Tech’s turn. The truth is, the horrible infractions and lack of oversight at the likes of Baylor, Penn State, and Ohio State—even after they’re discovered and theoretically addressed—almost lets the rest of college football off the hook. Yet it is still a world where sports is bigger than the rest of the university, and those backward priorities enable rape culture. Progress has been made, but not nearly enough.
The Baylor saga is still not over. A lawsuit by a group of “Jane Doe” victims remains active: earlier this year, defense attorney, former Texas state legislator, and Baylor alum Jim Dunnam accused the university’s lawyers of belittling and further traumatizing his clients during depositions. An NCAA investigation of the whole thing remains unresolved. And separate from the Briles scandal, Baylor remains a school where, officially, “heterosexual sex outside of marriage and homosexual behavior … are contrary to biblical teaching.”
10. Well, you still can’t make me root for Oklahoma. So who will be the guest picker on GameDay?
This is ESPN’s third visit to Waco. In 2014, it was Baylor great Mike Singletary. One year later, they went with comedian/ventriloquist Jeff Dunham.
This time around, women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey would be a perfectly fine choice. Some are even stumping for Willie Nelson (a Baylor alum, despite his well-known Darrell Royal friendship). But the consensus pick is obvious, and the GameDay set is already an open floor plan.
Update, 3:03 p.m.: We were right!
Umm.. I’m trying to play hard to get here.. but YESSSSS!!! @joannagaines and I are IN! See you and the crew on the banks of the Brazos! #happyBirthdayToMe! #collegegamedaypicker #dayMade https://t.co/SCXVdkjOAm
— Chip Gaines (@chipgaines) November 14, 2019