Art Briles has taken the Baylor football program to unseen heights.
A first-ever Big 12 championship? Check. A BCS bowl invitation? Check. An 11-win season for the first time in school history? Check. A top five ranking for the first time in 60 years? Check.
“It's a great feeling knowing that for years and years people have been working hard at Baylor to get to where we are right now,” defensive end Chris McAllister said of winning the Big 12 title. “To see everybody in that stadium, all the old guys, people I played with, people that played before me all in the stadium, cheering for one team, and wanting us to get this goal, it shows the family that is around here, the Baylor family. It's indescribable."
Outside of an undefeated regular season, it’s hard to imagine a better year for the Bears.
“Baylor Football has unbelievable momentum and the Baylor brand has never been as strong as it is right now,” Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw said. “We have got a lot of horsepower behind us right now and that is going to translate into success going forward. We just need to keep building on the planks in place."
The Tostitos Fiesta Bowl contest with UCF is the prime opportunity to carry that momentum into the 2014 season.
“Anytime you're in a bowl game that's got a big B, C and S on it, it's a big-time deal,” Briles said. “There are five of them. We can probably sit here and name all the people that are involved in those five bowl games without having to look at a piece of paper.”
Baylor will take the field in Arizona with a hunger for more. A Big 12 ring is great, but the Bears have their eye on a bigger prize.
“Now that we've established ourselves as Big 12 champions, it's not like we reached the mountaintop,” Briles said. “There's a lot of things out in front of us we're shooting for, doing everything right in all situations across the board. There's other team goals we want to achieve.”
And they’ll have to win big games to achieve those goals. The Bears won several big games, including home wins over Oklahoma and Texas, to win the Big 12 outright, but a blowout road loss to Oklahoma State knocked them out of the national title hunt. After the game Briles admitted OSU’s experience in big games might have played a role in the loss.
“There are rodeos and this is not their first one,” Briles said at the time.
The BCS is the national stage, another chance for the Bears to continue to get more comfortable playing among the nation’s elite with all eyes on them. Baylor enters the game as the clear favorite with most expecting an easy BU win. If they play well, it could be a great sign for the future because it’s a scenario the Bears are likely to experience week after week in 2014, especially if an impressive Fiesta Bowl win catapults them into the preseason top 10.
“I know you don't want to look too far ahead,” Briles said. “You have your quarterback coming back. What you've built, there's a very good chance you could be a top-five team next season.”
Make no mistake, after this season, the Bears will go from the hunter to the hunted in 2014.
“Is it completely different now that you're the team people are gunning for? We like it,” Briles said. “That's something that you try to do. You like to have the target on your back, on your chest, wherever they want to put it. If people are not shooting at you, they're not respecting you.”
We know how Baylor handles the underdog role, but how will it handle favorite status on the national stage? We’ll get a glimpse on Jan. 1.
“We're just trying to earn respect,” Briles said. “I think our duty now is to maintain that respect. It took us four or five years to get there. Now we're going to have to work hard to make sure we maintain that level of respect people finally have for us.
“We've gotten to a good point with our program. Now the drive and duty is to maintain that."