How Baylor can finally win in Stillwater and keep playoff door cracked
The last time the Baylor Bears won in Stillwater, Oklahoma, the fifth Heisman Trophy award was given to Nile Kinnick, a halfback from Iowa. That same year, 1939, No. 1 TCU beat No. 6 Carnegie Tech 15-7 in the fifth Sugar Bowl, and the University of Oregon beat Ohio State 46-33 in the very first NCAA men's basketball championship.
Seventy-six years and 11 meetings on Oklahoma State soil later, Baylor head coach Art Briles is looking for more than just a way out of the losing streak in Stillwater — he is looking for a way into the College Football Playoff. (Baylor plays Oklahoma State at 7:30 p.m ET Saturday on FOX.)
The Bears seemingly played their way out of the committee's line of sight with a 44-34 loss to now-No. 7 Oklahoma at home last week. But like several other teams that suffered potentially debilitating losses (Stanford, Utah and LSU), all hope is not lost just yet. Stanford has Notre Dame, Utah has a shot at the Pac-12 championship, LSU has Ole Miss and the Bears have a tenured, tenacious foe in Oklahoma State.
A one-loss record is redeemable, even given the proclaimed "soft" nature of Baylor's schedule. But beating the Cowboys is the key that unlocks the door, and Baylor must do several things to claim this critical victory.
NO. 1: SURVIVE THE LETDOWN
After dropping a tough loss at home to the Sooners, bouncing back is Briles' only course of action. Luckily, Baylor never stays down for very long: The Bears have won three straight after a loss (no back-to-back losses since 2012) by an average of 19.3 points. Baylor also owns the last victory in the series with Oklahoma State — the Bears defeated the Cowboys 49-28 in Waco last year.
The Bears are 3-0 in true road games in 2015 and 4-0 away from Waco. Baylor is also 10-2 in true road games over the past two-plus years after going 7-17 in the first five years of the Briles era. The Bears have won 15 of their past 19 games played outside of Waco. Keeping his players focused on the task at hand while disregarding all the "home turf" hype will be Briles' responsibility.
NO. 2: SCORE EARLY AND OFTEN
Baylor is the nation's only team to score on its first drive in every game this season, and the Bears have scored touchdowns on all of those drives, so expect Briles to subscribe to the Ricky Bobby "if you ain't first, you're last" mentality. Baylor's first-half scoring average this season (33.6) is the nation's highest since 1996 — the next closest is Oklahoma's 2008 squad at 33.1. Scoring first makes a statement, but being efficient on scoring drives helps keep the faith. Baylor leads all FBS teams in TD drives of two minutes or less (42) after also leading the nation a year ago (41).
If speed and efficiency are what help Baylor get ahead, then statistical domination is what will keep them there. Briles' team leads the NCAA with 637.9 yards per game and 54.8 points per contest. Baylor is the only FBS school to be top-11 in passing (11th, 345.7) and rushing offense (5th, 292.2). Oh, and they lead the nation in offensive yards per play.
NO. 3: PROTECT THE PASS
The biggest concern facing Baylor is of course quarterback Jarrett Stidham's health. Stidham took over for starter Seth Russell after his neck injury in October, but the freshman injured his back in Baylor's loss to Oklahoma last weekend. While his status is still unclear, a source close to the program told TSFJ that Stidham is "good [and] that he has been practicing all week and that he will start and play on Saturday."
Aas of Wednesday, however, Briles was not particularly encouraged by his progress.
"Honestly, not as far along as what I'd like for him to be," Briles told The Dallas Morning News after Wednesday's practice. "We'll see in the next day or two."
If Stidham were unable to play, sophomore Chris Johnson would get the start. Johnson, who attempted four passes as a redshirt freshman last season, spent the first two-thirds of the 2015 season as a wide receiver before moving back to QB after Russell's injury. Whichever young QB ends up starting, Baylor's offensive line will have to keep him safe from Oklahoma State defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah, who is the nation's active career sacks leader with 26. He has 11 sacks, 17 quarterback hurries and 15.5 tackles for loss this season.
QB worries aside, there is the concern over wide receiver Corey Coleman, who leads the FBS in receiving yards per game (136.6) and touchdown catches (20).
Oklahoma managed to neutralize Coleman last week, limiting him to only three catches for 51 yards and no touchdowns after averaging 147.3 yards per game and 2.5 touchdowns per game in Baylor's previous eight games. Keeping the Cowboys' defense from shutting down Coleman will be important for the Bears.
Although, there is always fifth year senior Jay Lee.
At the end of the day, coach Briles knows that if the Bears win in Stillwater, playoff talk will come; all his team can do now is (pardon the pun) bear down.
"We're actually in the situation now where our vision is pretty tunnel," said Briles on Monday. "It's Stillwater this Saturday at 6:30 p.m. and whatever happens from there happens, and I think we all know it's pretty hard to predict what's going to happen. We just have to fight hard and get a win."