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Art Briles sees more complete Baylor emerging

Art Briles wasn’t jumping to conclusions in the heat of the moment. He was, as always, just speaking the truth as he sees it.

Fresh off a 28-7 win at Texas last Saturday, Briles made an intriguing claim: This Baylor team is better than last year’s Big 12 champions.

“That’s just the bottom line,” Briles said. “We are not where we need to be or have to be to have a chance to win the conference again. But I do think we are a better football team than we were a year ago at this time.”

The numbers might not back up that boast. But Briles is still probably right.

What his No. 5-ranked Bears have done in road wins at Iowa State and Texas to open conference play seem to have affirmed Briles’ belief that this is a more complete team than Baylor has had in past years.

The Bryce Petty-led offense is not playing at its top speed just yet. That much seemed clear last week, when Petty had the least productive start of his career and Baylor still thrived in all areas of the game.

Its defense didn’t give up a score until 2:14 remained in the ballgame. Its special teams unit completely swung the game on two plays, a blocked field goal returned for a TD and an impromptu fake punt. Its offensive line and running backs pounded out 278 yards on 60 rushes.

Against the best team Baylor has faced so far, everybody rose to the challenge.

“It was just the ultimate team win. It really was,” Petty said. “Hats off to really everybody that put on the green and gold that day.”

Through five games last season, Baylor’s offense was putting up 63 points and 714 yards per game. The Bears had two Big 12 wins under their belt back then, a 31-point blowout of West Virginia and a tough 10-point win at Kansas State. Petty led the nation in QBR and yards per attempt. The defense ranked in the top 25 in most categories.

But the ship was most definitely driven by Briles’ offense, and a perfect season was spoiled by losses to Oklahoma State and UCF, two teams that managed to exploit various flaws in all three phases.

Five games into 2014, you get the sense this group is different. Baylor proved in nonconference play and again last week that its fate and fortune aren’t tied entirely to Petty or any one player. And he’s realized that, too.

“It's not just one or two people, like maybe before, that had to play extremely well for us to have a good game,” Petty said. “Everybody is really good on this team now, so we kind of have each other's backs. I didn't play real well Saturday, so I'm looking forward to this game to kind of set myself back straight. But again, the team played outstanding."

That’s a credit to the sustainability of what Briles has built in Waco. Baylor’s continued steady success in recruiting and development, as well as the retention of its entire coaching staff, is paving the path to establishing a more complete team from top to bottom.

“I think that Coach [Philip] Montgomery and the offensive staff has done a great job of keeping us at a level where we are not one-dimensional,” Briles said. “Coach [Phil] Bennett and the defensive staff has done a great job of elevating that side of the ball with their style of play and the personnel on the field.

“I do think that we are getting closer to being the complete team that you always want to be. It's something that we strive for and will continue to strive for.”

Baylor’s offense, with almost its full arsenal of weapons back on the field, isn’t back to its top speed but still leads the nation at 51 points per game. This group is coming off its lowest-scoring victory since 2009. And they couldn’t be more pleased about where their team stands.

Entering one of the season’s greatest tests against No. 9 TCU on Saturday, that might speaks volumes about Baylor’s still-evolving mindset. If the offense isn’t clicking, the rest of the team is proving it can be trusted to win the day.

The truth is, Baylor hasn’t played its best football yet. And that should probably scare everyone else.