Baylor has claimed the title of Texas’ best program
Baylor Bears wide receiver KD Cannon and running back Levi Norwood and wide receiver Jay Lee celebrate Cannons touchdown against the Southern Methodist Mustangs during the first half at McLane Stadium.
WACO, Texas – Robert Griffin III, the Heisman winner and No. 2 draft pick was in town to christen his statue and the stadium he built (even if its namesake, Drayton McLane, technically paid for it.) He roamed the field, suites and ran through the Baylor line below a silver, fire-spouting arch in a green velour blazer before conducting the band through "Livin’ on a Prayer" at halftime.
Oh yeah, and he shared a fistbump before the coin toss with a guy he probably just calls "43," former president George W. Bush.
Art Briles, the coach who helped build the stadium was gladhanding alums turned NFL draft picks like Terrance Williams, Ahmad Dixon and Danny Watkins before the game before recruits and basketball players asked him to pose for a photo after a quick handshake.
Some of the 45,733 who came through the gates for Baylor’s 45-0 win over former Southwest conference rival SMU arrived by boat in one of the 30 slips on the banks of the Brazos River, just steps from the gates to McLane Stadium.
"I told our staff, make sure you take some mental pictures of this, because this is a once in a lifetime experience," Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw said. "One of the greatest nights in the history of the university."
Defensive terror Shawn Oakman and his wreckage-obsessed buddies along the defensive line beat up SMU quarterbacks Neal Burcham and Matt Davis for four quarters while the offense looked a little rusty and could only manage a 31-0 halftime lead. Oakman did it all weaing a jersey that revealed his abs and made him look like he belonged on one of Miami’s fearsome defenses from the late 80s.
A 24-0 lead after the first quarter removed any real competition from what turned out to be a green and gold celebration of being miles away from the laughingstock Baylor once was. It was easy for fans to look to the north end zone wall and dream that "2013" wouldn’t be the only year commemorated alongside the "Big 12 Champions" sign in the stadium.
"I don’t think I’ve ever coached in a bigger game, I really don’t where I felt like I was indebted to so many people and to a cause that we really wanted to do well, because so many people put so much into making this happen," Briles said. "It just makes it so meaningful."
It was a night to remember for Baylor, but the $266 million "Jewel of the Brazos" gave the Bears a chance to pause and take stock of just how far the program has come in five years.
College football is a fickle game, but on this day, Aug. 31, 2014, Baylor opened its season as the best program in Texas.
"Baylor is the powerhouse of Texas now," Griffin told reporters before the game. "I don’t know if anybody else wants to admit that, but Baylor has owned Texas for a while now."
On the field, Baylor is a team who can call a 45-0 win over a once-proud in-state rival sloppy and complain about offensive execution and not sound disingenuous or nitpicky.
"I didn’t feel like we were all that effective offensively," Briles said.
It was unimpressive only because the bar in Waco has reached once-unthinkable heights. If the season ends without another Big 12 title trophy finding a home at Baylor, it will feel like a disappointment.
Texas A&M’s gargantuan upgrade to Kyle Field will surpass the Bears in sheer manpower, but Baylor’s cozy perch on the river gives it a picturesque backdrop only Washington and Tennessee can duplicate. Sunday, it easily surpassed TCU as the Big 12’s nicest stadium, even if an odd faux brick tarp draped down the front of the stands provided punchlines across social media.
Take a tour across the state, and the Aggies are Baylor’s only real competition for the state’s crown.
Texas is hoping Charlie Strong’s gigantic biceps and disciplinary stylings will rebuild a program (they probably will eventually) that is just 18-17 in Big 12 play since playing for the 2010 national title.
TCU is still trying to figure out how to field and develop the depth that will help it compete in its new conference.
With apologies to Sumlin, Baylor arguably has the state’s best coach and its best offense.
"We’re one of the best programs in the state of Texas and in the country right now," McCaw said. "Art’s led one of the greatest transformations of a college football program certainly in recent years, if not ever."
Baylor debuted its biggest piece – McLane Stadium – on Sunday, but the program has undergone more than $320 million in total facility upgrades since Briles’ arrival.
"We’re a hot school right now," McCaw said.
Receiver KD Cannon saw it. The five-star receiver was one of the prizes of the 2014 recruiting class and picked Baylor, a school he saw as "just OK" back when his recruiting process began to heat up. This despite holding offers from pretty much anybody who’s made an appearance in the top 10 of the polls in that span.
"I saw if you play receiver in Baylor’s offense, you’ve got a great chance to go to the league," he said. "That’s what I want to do."
Both universities have a Heisman Trophy in the past three years, but two seasons with one of the best college players ever didn’t even yield as much as a division title for Texas A&M, thanks to taking up residence in the SEC West alongside recent national champions Auburn, Alabama and LSU.
Baylor, meanwhile, won the Big 12 and played in a BCS bowl last season, a place Texas A&M hasn’t been in a decade and a half.
"Where we are right now may not be where we are in December, as opposed to last year and two years ago. It’s all ever-changing," Briles said. "One week you might be in one place, another week you might be somewhere else … We’re trying to be a consistent, respected team that tries to dominate."
Sumlin’s swagger (and SwaggerCopter) along with rapper Drake’s ever-wavering fandom may give the Aggies a slight edge on the cool factor, but these Bears won’t be abandoning their post near the top of the Big 12 with top-shelf athletes on both sides of the ball and a staff that’s proven an ability to develop them.
Sunday was the celebration of a new day in Baylor history, but it was also the realization of a new day in the state of Texas. The once down-trodden Bears are the state’s top program, and it’s going to take a lot to dethrone a program that’s waited a long time to grasp the crown.