It's been quite a season for Baylor (6-2), which is bowl eligible for the first time since 1995 and earned a spot in the AP Poll (No. 25) for the first time since 1993. Even more astonishing: Baylor is ranked and Texas is not entering Saturday's game in Austin.
"We're not sitting here in October thinking about what it's gonna be like in November," says Bears coach Art Briles. "We got what we got, and that's an opportunity to go play Texas this week at their place, try to fight hard and get out of there with a win."
Still, it's tough not to get excited. Baylor's offense, led by dynamic sophomore quarterback Robert Griffin III, is averaging 510.8 yards per game, fifth in the nation. The 6-foot-2, 220 pound Griffin has thrown for 2,373 yards and 18 touchdowns, including 10 TD passes of 40 yards or longer. He's also rushed for 384 yards and five scores.
Those statistics are especially striking since Griffin missed most of 2009 with a torn ACL.
"By not being able to play last year, I think it allowed him to look at the game from a different perspective, to understand more, to have a better feeling of why things were happening on the field," says Briles. "I think that's helped him with his production."
For the first time in years there is buzz over the football team on the Waco, Texas, campus. Historically, Baylor has been dreadful. The Bears haven't had a winning season since the inception of the Big 12 in 1996, and have gone 11-69 in conference play dating back to 2000. Baylor has finished last or tied for last in 13 of the 14 seasons, and hasn't won a bowl game the 1992 John Hancock Bowl.
"Our guys have been operating on faith and dreams for so many years and now it's real," says Briles.
Baylor has taken steps in the right direction since hiring Briles two years ago. Briles has a reputation for turning programs around; he brought Houston from 0-11 in 2003 to 10-4 three years later.
Briles immediately upgraded the talent in Waco, first by landing Griffin and then adding sophomore wide receiver Josh Gordon and freshman defensive end Tevin Elliot. The Bears recruiting class for 2010 is ranked No. 39 by Rivals.com, which would be the highest-ranked class in school history.
"We're feeling good about the direction it's headed now, but we also understand we got a long way to go," says Briles.
That starts Saturday in Austin. The Texas game is the beginning of a brutal stretch that includes Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Oklahoma. In order for Baylor to remain in the Big 12 race its defense, which is surrendering 385 yards per game, will need to improve. But for the first time since the Clinton presidency, the Bears have reason to believe.
"I like the mentality of our football team right now," says Briles. "We're gonna play extremely hard for 60 minutes and lay it all on the line."