Since losing to conference opponent Missouri on Saturday night, the Oklahoma Sooners have fallen all the way to number nine in the BCS standings, momentarily boxed out of the national championship picture by the seven undefeated teams still remaining in college football. They also ceded their position atop the Big 12 North because of the in-conference loss.
The new tenants? The Baylor Bears.
Yes, that Baylor, the school that has yet to post a winning record in 14 seasons as a member of the Big 12. Although it may seem like a sick joke to the other 11 public universities that populate the conference, this is no hoax. In a little less than three seasons, head coach Art Briles has lured the Bears (6-2, 3-1 in Big 12 play) out of their bottom-feeding cave and steered them to bowl-eligible status despite playing in a division that includes two of the last four BCS National Championship participants. These are not uncharted waters for Briles: when he took over as head coach at Houston (his alma mater) in 2003, the Cougars had won eight games in the previous four years, but he managed to lift the program to a 34-28 overall record and four bowl appearances in the next five seasons.
That said, the turnaround at Baylor is not born solely out of Briles' wisdom. The coach does possess one commodity not afforded to any Bears coaches before him: believe it or not, the most valuable quarterback in the Big 12, Robert Griffin III, goes to class in Waco.
"You know, Robert brings a dynamic, energetic quality to your football team," Briles said before this season. "Without a question, we are a different football team [with him playing]."
In his 2008 true freshman campaign, the 6'3" signal-caller from Copperas Cove, TX wowed the whole league, drawing all-conference freshman honors despite playing for an overmatched squad that finished 4-8, not to mention 2-6 in the conference. Griffin's playmaking abilities were prominently displayed even against a schedule that included six bouts with ranked opponents, among them No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 4 Texas, No. 7 Texas Tech and No. 8 Oklahoma State; he threw only three interceptions in those games (they were his only picks of the season) while completing 81 passes, often using his feet to gain ground while covering up shoddy blocking on the offensive line. His end-of-year stats (2,091 yards passing, 843 yards rushing, 28 total touchdowns), though not eye-popping from a yards perspective, established him as an up-and-coming player that belonged in the same category as Ryan Broyles, DeMarco Murray, Kendall Hunter and Roy Helu Jr.
Despite his claim that he "couldn't have had those stats or all the accolades without the 10 other guys on the field," Griffin's importance was highlighted last year when he tore his ACL in a blowout win at Northwestern State. Without Griffin under center, the Bears went 2-7.
"I felt like I let the community down, the fans and those seniors from last year," Griffin said in an interview after the season. He refused to let that disappointment shake his focus. "I don't wanna come back with that 'I'm back' mentality, trying to prove that I'm still the man. I just want to come back, have fun with the guys. I don't think it'll be a drastic change [from before the injury]."
"What we do fits him to a T," Briles said, "so we're just gonna cut loose and play and let Robert do his thing along with everybody else."
After a year of surgery, physical rehabilitation and lots of practice, the political science major returned to the Floyd Casey Stadium turf on September 4th, throwing for 242 yards with two touchdowns and running for another score in the Bears' season-opening win. RG3 was still himself.
""He is the same Rob," offensive tackle Danny Watkins said after the game. "He's still the wizard back there. I mean, at times we weren't clicking on offense but we're going to get better every week."
For the most part, the Bears have done that. They won their next game against Buffalo, with Griffin throwing for 230 yards in the first half of 34-6 victory; since then, Baylor has only been held under 30 points once, dropping a tough game to No. 4 TCU on September 18th in Fort Worth. (The vaunted Horned Frogs defense held Griffin to just 164 yards passing and one touchdown.) Even in a painful 45-38 loss to a streaky Texas Tech team, Griffin passed for 384 yards and two scores and added a pair of touchdowns on the ground.
The bad news for the Bears at this point in the season is that the meat of their schedule is right in front of them. Baylor, which plays 12 straight games from September through November without an idle week, is about to go toe-to-toe with Texas (in Austin) and No. 17 Oklahoma State (in Stillwater) before returning home for games against Texas A&M and No. 9 Oklahoma. In their bid to win the division, the loss to Texas Tech was a huge blow, but there is still some scratching and clawing left in these Bears. Though it's doubtful that Briles' guys will run the table, it isn't ridiculous to believe that they can go 2-2 over that stretch. Texas has trouble scoring; OSU struggled mightily against dual-threat quarterback Taylor Martinez; the Sooners are relatively weak against the run and play suspect red-zone defense; the Aggies have turnover issues. With the right combination of balanced playcalling and on-the-money execution, the Bears can steal a win in any one of these games.
"Like we said from day one: every week is a new season and we are just trying to become a better football team each week," Briles told the media yesterday after beating Kansas State 47-42. "We haven't peaked and that is the encouraging part as a team member and a coach."
Clearly, Griffin and running back Jay Finley need to be playing their best brand of mistake-free football if the Bears are to finish November with a winning record. They need one more win to complete a turnaround season on which they can lay the foundations for next year, but Briles doesn't sound as though he'll be happy with just one. It won't be easy, but the Bears certainly seem capable and motivated to finish the job.
While Griffin remains overshadowed by Terrell Pryor and Darron Thomas, fellow 2008 recruits leading their own November charges at Ohio State and Oregon, he will keep doing 'his thing' for the No. 25 Bears, who are ranked in the Associated Press Poll for the first time since 1991. A win against Texas, OU or Oklahoma State would be huge, though it would totally blow Griffin's cover as an underdog diamond-in-the-rough and potential 2011 Heisman candidate. But that's alright - Baylor believes they still have yet to play their best football. The Big 12 had better take notice.