The best college football team in Texas this year is the Baylor Bears.
This is not a controversial opinion. Baylor won fifteen straight games (dating back to last season) before its national championship hopes died at Oklahoma State in late November. They’re 10-1 and ranked number nine in the Bowl Championship Series standings (Texas A&M and the University of Texas are twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth, respectively). They have the country’s most outrageous and productive offense (635 yards and 55.4 points a game), with a quarterback, junior Bryce Petty, who’s only thrown two interceptions all year. If they beat UT on Saturday in Waco, Art Briles’s Bears will claim at least a share of the Big 12 championship.
And what if UT, a two-touchdown underdog according to the bettors, pulls the upset? Or if Baylor plays in the Cotton Bowl (likely) against the Aggies (unlikely) and loses to a rested Johnny Football?
Doesn’t matter. Baylor’s still the best team in the state. Because once the team you root for isn’t playing for the BCS championship, college football should at least be fun. And Baylor’s fans and players may be the only ones having any.
Consider the other top-tier teams around the state. UT? No matter how it ends, there’s not much people want to say about the Longhorns’ up/down season that is not about head coach Mack Brown’s expected ease-out. Texas Tech? The future’s bright for Esquire man Kliff Kingsbury and his pair of freshmen quarterbacks, but the Red Raiders started 7-0 and finished 0-5, and that’s no fun at all. The Aggies? With a clearly injured Manziel, and three of its four losses to current BCS Top 5 teams, there’s no shame in A&M’s season, but A&M was supposed to be one of those top five teams.
Baylor’s actually having the season A&M had last year. Aggie-haters criticized the school’s fans for acting like being the fourth or fifth-best SEC team in a second-tier bowl with a dominating win over a ho-hum opponent was the best thing ever, but what Manziel did all season, and what A&M did to Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, was in fact the best thing of the Texas college football season, and the best thing for the school in years.
So it is with Baylor. Nobody expected anything from them this year—Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Texas, and TCU were all picked to finish ahead of the Bears in the Big 12 media preseason poll. And even after they began to rise up on the field and in the polls, people doubted. Those doubts were not unreasonable given the Bears’ weak non-conference schedule. Plus, being unreasonable is a college football birthright in this age of Twitter schadenfreude.
So let’s give the Bears a break. Last year, we graded the Aggies on a curve based on their move to the notoriously difficult SEC. If UT gets a new coach next year, we’ll grade the Longhorns on a curve (unless it’s Saban). And right now it’s okay to grade Baylor on a curve. After all, it’s Baylor. A relatively small, private religious school. A women’s basketball school, if you want to snark. They are not supposed to be good. They won two SWC titles under coaching legend Grant Teaff, but none between 1924 and 1974. The Teaff-coached, Mike Singletary-led 1980 team is the only Bears team ever to win ten games during the regular season (Robert Griffin III and the 2011 team finished 10-3 with its Alamo Bowl victory). They’ve never won the Big 12 conference (or even played in the championship game, when there was one) and in fact, were infamously almost kept from joining it at all.
That’s why being 10-1 and still having that shot at the Big 12 title actually matters, even after Baylor’s BCS dream died in Stillwater. “This is a great team. This is a special team. Like I said, a loss does not define this team,” Bryce Petty said after the OSU defeat. “Would this have been nice? Sure. But, it’s not going to ruin our goal as Big 12 champions.”
If Petty played for Alabama, or for UT in 2009, that’s a statement you could mock. Man up, son. Win it all, or don’t bother! Win it all, or we’ll probably fire your coach!
But come on! It’s Baylor! Texas senator Kirk Watson, a dual Baylor alum (undergraduate and law school) puts it in the proper perspective: “We’re having a conversation about disappointment about not going undefeated, and not being in the national title game. That wasn’t something you talked about three years ago.”
When Baylor followed up the OSU loss with a 41–38 win over TCU that, had they still been undefeated, probably would have cost them beauty-contest poll points, Art Briles certainly wasn’t jaded. “It’s possibly the biggest win that we’ve experienced—one of the biggest—since we’ve been at Baylor the last six years,” he said.
That might be overstating it. TCU is 4-8. But getting that tenth win and staying in contention for the conference is still pretty big. And losing would have been disastrous (you wouldn’t be reading this column, that’s for sure).
Saturday is the school’s final game ever at Floyd Casey Stadium, which, over the past three seasons, has become an intense place to play. The school coordinated a “blackout” crowd when they played Oklahoma in November, and the “Baylor Line,” where a big yellow mass of freshmen run on the field when the team comes out, then moves into the student section, is still one of the more unique and effervescent game-night traditions.
It’s also a tradition that only dates back to 1970. And dancing—jokes about which are the “that’s what she said” of Texas college football (i.e., too easy)—has only been allowed at Baylor since 1996. (EMBED GIF). Which is to say, the Bears haven’t had much practice being rabid football fans.
Floyd Casey is also known for “the Tarp,” a source of embarrassment for Baylor fans, and mockery for everyone else. The south end zone was literally covered up with a cloth to mask the fact that Baylor football can’t sell out the little stadium. Until this year—at last month’s Oklahoma game and the UT game—it hadn’t come off since a 51,385-person sellout crowd against A&M in 2006. Undeniably, each time this has happened was for road fans as much as home fans.
Baylor fans admittedly don’t travel well either: the school reportedly bought just 700 tickets (out of a possible 3,800) for the game in Stillwater, and only 830 out of a possible 3,850 when RGIII visited the Aggies in 2011 (a subject A&M was happy to issue a press release about). Tradition and passion for Baylor football is a work in progress, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s really just a simple matter of arithmetic. Funnily enough, the sparkling new on-campus stadium in Waco will actually hold fewer people than Floyd Casey. Such is life as a smaller school. With only 12,000 students and approximately 165,000 living alumni, Baylor technically draws a larger percentage of its community to Floyd Casey than UT (with some 40,000 students and 400,000 living alums) does to DKR–Memorial, sell-out or not.
But the Bears now have reason to cheer (and dance!). As Kirk Watson puts it, tongue only slightly in cheek: “I fall back on my education at Baylor and point out that [the school’s football history] is very similar to the book of Job: the years of suffering and pain, but always believing that righteousness and justice would ultimately prevail. And here we are.”