My sleeper pick to get to the College Football Playoff is Baylor, who I don’t feel like should be much of a sleeper anymore. But hanging at No. 10 in the preseason poll makes the Bears just far enough back to fit the term, especially since so many folks have boarded the Oklahoma bandwagon.
Me? I’m a little skeptical of the Sooners, especially since they’re going to be so inexperienced at wide receiver this year. I get that there are still a lot of people not sold on Baylor.
They think they’re a fluke and point to their bowl loss to UCF last winter or the fact that they’ve never won in Norman, which is where they have to visit late in the year. My retort to the latter: There were a whole bunch of things Baylor football hadn’t accomplished till Art Briles showed up in Waco.
Here are seven reasons why I’m such a believer in Baylor being a playoff team.
1. QB BRYCE PETTY IS BACK
Petty is back for a second season as BU’s starting QB after producing 46 combined rushing and passing TDs against just six turnovers last season. It’s so impressive to be in such a big-play attack yet make so few costly mistakes. And that was while shaking off the rust of, like, 1,800 days between starts. He’s had more seasoning in the system with so many live reps. He also spent several weeks this offseason training on the side with private QB coach George Whitfield to address some weaknesses.
"I want to extend the play within the pocket," Petty said of his big focus with Whitfield. "You watch Peyton Manning, you watch Drew Brees and Tom Brady, those guys are the best because one, they’re healthy, but two, they give the ball to those guys who can make plays. I can run around and I can do things. But those guys are a lot faster and a lot stronger than I am, so I want to give the ball to AG (Antwan Goodley) and Corey (Coleman) and Levi (Norwood) and those guys, and let those guys make the plays because they’re going to make me look a lot better than I can make them look. I really wanted to work within the pocket this year and extend plays that way, rather than rolling out of the pocket and only making one half the field, instead of having the whole field like you have within the pocket."
2. ART BRILES IS STILL THE COACH
Briles, after some speculation that he might bolt for the Texas vacancy, is back too. Sources say he had a good shot at the Longhorns job if he wanted it, but UT wanted to make him interview for it so he told them forget it. A few weeks ago I asked him how accurate that story is.
His answer: "That is neither here nor there because that is past. It is just kind of like us winning the Big 12 championship last year. That thing is in the vault. It is ours forever and nobody can take it. We’re sitting it over there and we’re attacking 2014."
3. BEARS STILL HAVE AN EDGE
The Bears are coming off winning their first Big 12 title, yet the chip on their shoulder has only gotten bigger.
"There are still a lot of doubters out there and there always will be regardless of what situation you are in," Briles said. "That is your motivation and that is what motivates us. We are in the proving business every day we step on the field. Every day we get out of bed we have to prove ourselves and we understand that. It is really something we talked about today with the team. We’re going to always make sure that we maintain the edge that somebody is always doubting us and somebody is really not thinking we’re where we need to be."
Said Petty: "We’re a ‘but’ team, always will be. That is fine with me. Again, that is what puts that chip on our shoulder to be the best and to be the standard, like we were talking about. You are always going to have those flukey, flakey comments about how we did, and it is just our job to go out and play our game. We believe it. We know that last year was not a fluke deal and that Baylor’s here to stay, and it’s our job to make you guys realize that and believe it."
4. THERE’S SPEED EVERYWHERE
The Bears return five of their top six receivers from 2013, led by the 5-foot-11, 225-pound Goodley, who despite his thick frame can still blur a 4.39 40-yard dash. And all of the Baylor receivers can fly.
That array of speed and Briles’ aggressive offense is why the Bears were the runaway national leader last season in big plays with 56 going for 30 yards or more (next best was Auburn at 45) and in plays in excess of 60 yards (13).
Baylor’s offense keeps defenses always on their heels in fear of the huge play. Last season the Bears scored 60 touchdowns in two minutes or less.
"If you are scared, buy a dog — we’re going to play ball," Briles says.
5. THE DEFENSE HAS ATHLETES, TOO
The Bears’ D will be better. The staff is excited about this group, especially in the front seven. They have a few difference-makers. They aren’t going to be LSU or Stanford, but they can get some stops and force some turnovers, and with Briles’ O, they don’t need to try to win games 12-9.
Two of the biggest studs: tackling machine Bryce Hager at middle linebacker and imposing defensive end Shawn Oakman, a 6-9, 280-pound Penn State transfer. The 6-2, 235-pound Hager’s smart and also a really good athlete (has clocked a 4.49 40, vertical jumps 36 inches and broad jumps an impressive 10-2). He led the Big 12 in tackles in 2012 and is a two-time All-Big 12 pick.
Last year Oakman had 12.5 tackles for losses and the staff really expects him to blossom even more this fall. Strength coach Kaz Kazadi told me of all the Freaks in this program, he’d put Oakman with his huge frame and 34-inch vertical on the top of the list.
Also, remember the name Andrew Billings. He’s a 6-2, 300-pound sophomore powerhouse. In high school he broke the 22-year-old Texas prep state meet record with a 2,010-pound showing (805 squat, 500 bench, 705 dead lift) in 2012. The previous record was held by current WWE star Mark Henry.
6. PETTY’S NEW WEAPON
Baylor will be even faster on offense thanks to an upgrade of Freaks, starting with the arrival of five-star wide receiver K.D. Cannon, the kind of blue-chipper Baylor wouldn’t have had a sniff at even just a few years ago.
"No way. We wouldn’t have been in the hunt," Briles acknowledged. "Now we did get Kendall Wright, who is a huge recruit for our first year here and of course RGIII, and both those guys were first-rounders. K.D. and some of these guys that are national recruits that we pulled this year and we pulled some others the last couple of years — Andrew Billings, Ahmad Dixon who is a national recruit — we are a little more acceptable now. We pulled those other guys just by being a place that people wanted to be at and to build a program. Now we’re getting them because we ARE a program."
Keep a close eye on Cannon. Petty says he’s a more explosive and smoother that ex-Baylor speedster Tevin Reese.
7. THE SCHEDULE SETS UP
The schedule is quite favorable. The toughest non-conference game is Sunday’s game against visiting SMU (7:30 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1), which failed to make a bowl game last year. That big Nov. 8 game in Norman also is preceded by a game against Kansas, the worst team in the conference, and before that one Baylor has a bye week.
Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.