WACO, Texas (AP) — Baylor defensive end Shawn Oakman is a big man who certainly demands attention. He is making the season’s goal for the Bears crystal clear.
"We have to be No. 1," said Oakman, who surprised many by returning for his senior season instead of early entry in the NFL draft. "We have to make it to the playoffs, and we have to make it to the national championship."
Not too many years ago, even when Robert Griffin III was winning the Heisman Trophy at Baylor, it would have been easy to dismiss what the 6-foot-9, 275-pound Oakman is saying.
With consecutive Big 12 titles, a load of returning starters even while replacing quarterback Bryce Petty and a steadfastly focused coach Art Briles, Baylor certainly appears set to be in the national title talk again a year after being snubbed by the first College Football Playoff.
"We expect to be there, too, but we also understand that if you are trying to get somewhere before you get there, then you might not make it," said Briles, starting his eighth season on the banks of the Brazos River. "We have to be great week in and week out … because people are expecting us to be there. Every time we line up against somebody, we are their game."
Baylor is no longer the perennial loser that other teams wanted to have as their homecoming opponent. These Bears have been to consecutive Bowl Championship Series games, though they lost both. Michigan State overcame a 20-point deficit in the fourth quarter at the Cotton Bowl to win 42-41 in January.
The nation’s top-gaining and highest-scoring offense the past two seasons returns 1,252-yard rusher Shock Linwood and 1,000-yard receivers Corey Coleman and KD Cannon for new junior starting quarterback Seth Russell, who in his only start last season for a banged-up Petty threw for 438 yards and five touchdowns in only one half.
"Seth, he is an amazing guy and a great role model on and off the field. He is a great athlete and he can throw the ball as well as anyone in the nation," Coleman said. "We have 100 percent trust that he will get the job done."
Here are a few things to know about Baylor, which has a Friday night season opener Sept. 4 at SMU:
GETTING DEFENSIVE: Oakman, with 11 sacks last season and 32 tackles for loss the past two years, is among nine starters and 25 lettermen returning on defense. Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said there is plenty of depth to play more players and have more options.
NOT A BIG GIMMICK: When 410-pound LaQuan McGowan caught an 18-yard TD pass in the Cotton Bowl, it seemed like a gimmick using a backup offensive lineman wearing a tight end’s number. McGowan is now wearing No. 80 as part of the offensive plan. "It has nothing to do with anything other than the fact that he is a big man who has exceptional athletic ability," Briles said.
WINNING EXPERIENCE: Baylor has 52 players on its roster who have Big 12 championship rings, including 30 who were part of the 2013 and 2014 titles.
WEIRD COINCIDENCE: When Baylor took its team photo this month, senior offensive linemen Jarell Broxton and Spencer Drango — Nos. 61 and 58 — were sitting side-by-side on the front row. School officials insisted it was just a "weird coincidence" that they were in that order and showing the final score of Baylor’s big comeback victory last October over TCU. The defending Big 12 co-champions play the Friday after Thanksgiving.
CALLING THE PLAYS: Kendal Briles, on his father’s Baylor staff the entire time, took over as offensive coordinator before the Cotton Bowl when Philip Montgomery became Tulsa’s head coach. "We racked up a bunch of yards with him," Cannon said, referring to the 603 yards passing in the bowl game. "I am just looking forward to seeing what us receivers are going to do with him."