DALLAS (AP) — Art Briles and the Baylor Bears have been through a long, long offseason since winning a share of their second consecutive Big 12 Conference title.
After being the first team left out of the initial College Football Playoff, the Bears led by 20 points in the fourth quarter on New Year’s Day before losing to Michigan State.
"We’re still in pain from the Cotton Bowl. We’ve lived with a really bad taste in our mouths," said Briles, going into his eighth season as Baylor’s coach. "This is an opportunity to let food taste good and music sound good again, because it hasn’t."
Now with their highest preseason ranking ever, the No. 4 Bears open the season Friday night at SMU, their former Southwest Conference rival playing its first game under new coach and Texas native Chad Morris.
The opener comes two days after Baylor hired a Philadelphia law firm to do an independent investigation into the university’s handling of sexual assault complaints, including one against former transfer Sam Ukwuachu. Ukwuachu, a defensive end who never played for Bears, was sentenced last month to six months in jail and 10 years of probation for assaulting a former Baylor women’s soccer player.
New starting quarterback Seth Russell said the Bears are keeping their focus on the start of the most anticipated season in school history.
"Everybody here is ready to play football," Russell said. "You can’t control what goes on outside the team."
Morris, Clemson’s offensive coordinator the past four seasons, took over an SMU team coming off a 1-11 season.
Like Briles, Morris has a resume with championships as a Texas high school coach. Morris’ 16 prep seasons were capped by consecutive 16-0 state titles at Lake Travis in 2008 and 2009, before one season as Tulsa’s offensive coordinator and then to Clemson.
Briles won four state titles from 1988-99 at Stephenville, where Morris coached from 2003-07. Briles went from high school to Texas Tech as an assistant before Houston as head coach and then Baylor, which at the time was coming off 12 consecutive losing seasons.
With a similar path, Morris now faces his own challenge at SMU, a private church-affiliated school in Texas — just like Baylor.
"(Briles) has done an outstanding job in Waco, Texas, of capturing the energy of the community, the energy of the alumni, the university itself," Morris said. "We hope to do that here in Dallas, Texas, too."
Some other things to know when Baylor plays at SMU for the first time since 2005:
SUSPENDED DEFENDERS: Baylor will be without two All-Big 12 defenders. Defensive end Shawn Oakman and safety Orion Stewart were suspended for the opener after violating unspecified team rules. A school spokesman said both would be back for the Bears’ home opener Sept. 12 against Lamar.
REUNITED, SORT OF: Before dual-threat quarterback Matt Davis went to Texas A&M and redshirted as a freshman behind Johnny Manziel, he was recruited by Morris, then at Clemson. Davis played his 2013 season in junior college before going to SMU, where in the final five games last season he had 1,270 total yards, with rushing games of 191 and 181 yards. Now Morris, with his up-tempo scheme, is his new coach. "He’s an ideal fit for this offense, I’m just excited about him and what he can do," Morris said.
STARTING SETH: Like Bryce Petty and Nick Florence before him, Russell had to wait his turn to take full control of the Baylor offense. In his only start as a sophomore last season when Petty was hurt, Russell passed for 438 yards and five touchdowns playing only the first half against Northwestern State. "There is pressure, but he’s done a great job of managing the pressure on the field and at practice," All-America tackle Spencer Drango said.
OLD RIVALS: The Mustangs and Bears played annually from 1916-95, with the exception of four years — 1943-44 and then 1987-88, when SMU’s program was shut down because of repeated NCAA violations. This will be only the fifth meeting the last 20 seasons since they end of their days together in the old Southwest Conference. Baylor has won the last 11 games to take a 37-36-7 series advantage.
CHALLENGING START: Two of SMU’s first three opponents are against No. 4 Baylor and then Sept. 19 at TCU. The last time the Mustangs played two top five teams in the same season was 1974.