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Baylor getting edge back in time for Big 12 run

WACO, Texas -- Art Briles talks constantly about “being the standard.” It’s become perhaps the favorite motto of Baylor’s still-rising program. And now that his Bears are entering Big 12 play this weekend against Texas Tech, he’s setting the bar even higher.

“We need to be a devastatingly dominant football team,” Briles said. “That’s the way we have to play.”

Not to satisfy College Football Playoff committee members or rise in the rankings. No, Briles is demanding that level of destruction because he knows how difficult winning the Big 12 again will be.

Three games into the 2015 season, the No. 5 Bears are pretty much right where they expected. Unbeaten. Nation’s No. 1 offense. Still getting better on defense. Still waiting for their first major test. Still have as much to prove as ever.

“I think we’re amping up at the right time,” Briles said.

When he took the pulse of the program during the Bears' mid-September bye week, Briles did have concerns. He feared he was losing his “edge” and felt Baylor hadn’t played with the right mentality against SMU and Lamar. Happy, comfortable teams get beat. Briles just wasn’t seeing the same hunger he’s long demanded.

He says he focused on “making myself become me again,” but he also issued a challenge to his players during the bye. Get the edge back.

And they sure took it out on Rice last weekend. In a 70-17 win, Baylor found the end zone on six of its first seven drives. Seth Russell threw for six scores and exited before the end of the third quarter. The Bears nearly had three 100-yard rushers. Their defense shut the Owls down on nine of 13 third downs, got five sacks and had a pair of takeaways. The backups got significant snaps to help build depth.

“I felt like the team was where we need it to be,” Briles said, “and that's the first time I felt that this year.”

Whether one nonconference blowout can alter the trajectory of this Baylor team is hard to say, but the players do get the sense they’re on the right track.

“We had to come out with high intensity and a lot of energy,” Russell said. “That’s where that edge comes from. Everybody was on the same page and clicking.”

Russell feels like he’s clicking now, too. He knew he needed a solid showing to close out nonconference play after throwing three interceptions against Lamar.

“I think he only had two bad plays out of 46, and that's the whole deal, which is to stay in the moment,” Briles said. “He was really sharp. He's going to have to play that way for us to have a chance to win.”

Russell is certainly starting to understand the standard. Baylor pulled away to notch 35-point wins at SMU and against Lamar. At most places, that might be considered good enough.

When you’re aiming for perfection, fair or not, you’re going to get graded a bit different.

“Nothing is ever good enough in our offense,” Russell said. “If we get a 30-point win, you know, people are upset and want a 40-point win or 50-point win. That’s something that’s great with our offense. We’re always trying to be better.

“If we put 70 points on somebody, 80 points, 90 points ... I think our goal is to put at least 100 points on somebody. Which would be pretty nice. But we have to set realistic goals.”

Going triple digits against a rising Texas Tech team might not be realistic, but Russell and his teammates know they’re in for a serious challenge at AT&T Stadium on Saturday and potentially a shootout that’ll rival last season’s 48-46 affair.

How will Baylor’s defense respond? This unit isn’t yet doing the things it prides itself on. The Bears' rate of forcing three-and-outs is down. Opposing quarterbacks are completing 60 percent of their passes. With just six takeaways, Baylor’s turnover margin entering Big 12 play is zero.

Facing a Texas Tech team that features ESPN’s No. 1-ranked offense in efficiency should provide an important litmus test of what’s real and what’s still in progress for Phil Bennett’s defense.

That's no less true, though, of the rest of these Bears. And Briles knows it. He's looking forward to finding out what's real.

“Our backs aren't full of pats,” Briles said. “We know we have a long ways to go as a football team. But we do have the potential to be pretty good."