Fifth-ranked Baylor ready for series of big tests
This is when the fifth-ranked Baylor Bears - and everybody else - find out if they are for real.
For all their ridiculous offensive numbers, their highest ranking in 60 years and reaching November as the Big 12's only undefeated team, coach Art Briles and the Bears (7-0, 4-0 Big 12) feel as if their season is really just getting started. Here come the big tests.
Up next for Baylor is its first ranked opponent this season, at home Thursday night against No. 12 Oklahoma (7-1, 4-1). That starts a season-ending stretch of games that includes playing every other team in the top half of the conference standings.
''We're in a proving business, and this is our job to once again prove where we stand as a football team,'' said quarterback Bryce Petty, the fourth-year junior in his first season starting. ''A challenge for us, but a challenge that we've been waiting for a while. I think everybody's going to embrace that.''
Arguably the most anticipated game in Baylor history starts a five-week span when the Bears also play 25th-ranked Texas Tech, at No. 15 Oklahoma State and then later their regular-season finale against Texas, the only other team that hasn't lost a Big 12 game. They also have to go to rival TCU.
''We're ready and willing and anxious to get into the grind time,'' said Briles, in his sixth season after taking over a program coming off 12 consecutive losing seasons. ''Get into where we're fighting and scraping for every single thing that's out there.''
Baylor has won a school-record 11 games in a row since its 42-34 loss at Oklahoma last season.
The Bears, outscoring teams by an average margin of 48 points this season, are listed as a two-touchdown favorite even though they have lost 21 of 22 games in their series against Oklahoma. They are the national leader with 718 total yards and 64 points a game.
The lone Baylor victory against Oklahoma was another prime-time game two years ago, when Robert Griffin III threw the winning TD pass with 8 seconds left for a 45-38 win that denied the Sooners a national title shot.
''It started to open a lot of people's eyes to what Baylor could do and what we are capable of,'' said receiver Tevin Reese, whose eight TD catches match teammate Antwan Goodley for the Big 12 lead. ''It has changed a lot in the past few years. I'm pretty sure Baylor was never the favorite in a lot of games. ... Being the favorite in a big game like this a good thing for this team. It helps build our confidence and makes it hard to stop us.''
It also helps that the Bears are 4-0 against Top 25 teams at home the past two seasons. They started the 2011 season with a win over then-defending Rose Bowl champion TCU, more than three months before Griffin's signature victory that likely clinched his Heisman Trophy.
''I definitely think that this game was huge for him, so I want to carry that on,'' said Petty, the Big 12 passing leader with 350 yards a game, along with 18 TDs and only one interception. ''I want to do whatever I need to do to help my team be successful and come out of this thing with a win.''
Petty was still on the sideline last November when Kansas State arrived in Waco as the No. 1 team in the BCS standings. Nick Florence was in the middle of his own record-setting season for Baylor, which beat the Wildcats 52-24 to wipe out their championship chance.
Before the Bears can even think about a national title shot, they have to take care of their Big 12 business. Baylor hasn't won an outright conference championship since Mike Singletary was a linebacker in 1980 for a Southwest Conference title team. It shared the SWC title in 1994, only because unbeaten Texas A&M was ineligible and the Bears were among five teams with a 4-3 SWC marks.
Still, Baylor was getting plenty of attention last weekend without playing a game.
''It was awesome, something that hasn't been in the past,'' linebacker Sam Noll said about what he heard and saw watching other games. ''It kind of showed us how big this game is, and how important it is. It makes you want to prepare to your maximum ability so you can go out and win that big game.''