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Baylor Out To Prove System Works Beyond RGIII

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Running back and Heisman candidate Lache Seastrunk is one of several NFL prospects produced by the Baylor offense outside of RGIII in recent years. Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images.
Running back and Heisman candidate Lache Seastrunk is one of several NFL prospects produced by the Baylor offense outside of RGIII in recent years. Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images.

Times are changing at Baylor, which means the time has come.

No Big 12 program has done more for itself in the last three years than the one Art Briles carefully constructed while turning down overtures from other teams. TCU has won more games and been on bigger stages, but not as a Big 12 member. Oklahoma State has been better on the field, but the Cowboys added to a history that didn’t exist at Baylor. Kansas State? It’s been where the Bears want to be.

Baylor’s 2010 season featured its the first bowl game in 15 seasons. The 2011 season culminated in the highest-scoring bowl game ever, a useful superlative the coaches can tweet to every recruit. The 2012 season witnessed consecutive bowl wins for the first time in Bears football history.

There have been NFL draft picks and a Heisman Trophy winner. High-impact transfers and high-profile recruits. The Bears beat No. 1 Kansas State last season and now aim to be the best in the Big 12 in 2013.

Yet to truly succeed, Baylor must make the leap from doing things the program has never done to doing things great programs are expected to do. There must be all-around strength and not one-dimensional domination.

The Bears are comfortable with people saying they’ve arrived. They battled the notion theirs was a program without a pedigree for far too long not to embrace the compliment. But they’re hesitant to say they’re staying put.

“It’s a good thing to finally be able to say it, but I think tradition and that believability is one of our strengths,” Briles said last week during a conference call. “We can finally live on what we’ve done, but we want to continue to show more.”

In reality, the Bears are moving. Their new stadium, a magnificent 45,000-seat, $250 million venue on the Brazos River with a bridge connecting it to campus, opens in 2014. The renderings are breathtaking and would seem to answer questions about Baylor football and whether or not the school was serious about raising and sustaining a powerhouse in Central Texas.

Yet questions remain about the Bears, who have been revered for their offense and ridiculed for their defense, and fans and doubters must wonder and worry about both in 2013. There is no world-class athlete at quarterback, like Robert Griffin III, and there is no smart and seasoned slinger like Nick Florence.

Their success in successive seasons has created this idea the offense is so cleverly designed with the extreme wide receiver splits, the rapid pace and the pesky plays that anyone can play quarterback and win games.

No pressure for their successor. All redshirt junior Bryce Petty has to do is once again set a school record and lead the Big 12 in total offense to keep the audience from questioning his performance in the prolific offense. The Bears need Petty, if only to continue to prove they can find the best player for an offense that is again supposed to be among the country’s best. If not, then credit for Baylor's rise will go to the unique talents of RGIII and people will wonder if Briles will ever find another like him.

“Without question that’s what we strive to do as a program,” Briles said on the conference call. “I think that shows we’re developing as a program. We had (Kevin) Kolb at Houston and then Case (Keenum) came along. It’s the same thing here going from Robert to Nick and hopefully to Petty. I think it shows the players understand what they’re doing and they’re confident in the system.”

Great programs with great systems produce great players, and the Bears are doing that, replacing one NFL receiver (Kendall Wright in 2011) with another (Terrance Williams in 2012). Running back Lache Seastrunk, a Texas native who was one of the top recruits at his position in 2010, transferred from Oregon two years ago, starred in 2012 and could win the Heisman this season. Davion Hall, a safety/receiver from Texas, is presently the top-rated recruit committed to a Big 12 school for the 2014 recruiting class.

Contrast the offensive success with the performance of the defense. While the offense the last three years has ranked No. 36 in scoring in 2010 and No. 4 in 2011 and 2012, conquering the most important stat in college football, Baylor has gone from No. 89 to No. 113 and No. 110 in scoring defense.

The offense carried the team to a 5-1 finish, including four straight wins to end the season, salvaging a 3-5 start, but it was the defense that benefited from the extra practices before the bowl game and held UCLA to 33 yards rushing. The Bruins finished 2012 ranked No. 24 in total offense and No. 37 in rushing offense. Baylor, No. 119 in total defense, allowed 362 yards of total offense. That matched the second-lowest total of the season, a performance even with the one just three games earlier in a 52-24 suffocation of Kansas State.

The Bears have eight starters back and many of them will be in their third season with defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, who only came to Baylor before the 2011 season and required time to get the talent and the depth near the level on offense.