The Baylor Bears are at a high point right now. They are being chosen as dark horse candidates in the Big 12 title race, and even by a reputable and non-green and gold newsman about a national title game birth. To say that the heights might be a bit dizzying are being modest. But those expectations are not just blustery fan talk or talking heads spouting off, but also the team and the coaching staff.
Bryce Hager recently told reports that the Bear's defense expects "total domination" in each game they play. When Art Briles was asked about his reaction to getting two first-place votes in the Big 12 media poll, he simply asked what the other 23 didn't believe in his squad. Lache Seastrunk started his Heisman campaign early in the offseason with his declaration, and has said nothing to diminish those goals.
Right now, if you were to take the temperature of the average Baylor fanatic, it would probably be 105 degrees. Dreams of Pasadena are running wild, as Bryce Petty alluded to when asked about where he hoped to be at the end of the season. Of course we all know that Pasadena is the home of the Rose Bowl and the BCS National Championship game for this season.
This time of year is always one of optimism and heightened expectations. Every fan base has been hearing about this redshirt freshman that dominated the scout team and is ready to break out this year, or this backup that is finally ready to explode, or that their players are working out harder and are in the best shape of their lives. We hear this every year, yet we all salivate at the possibility that this will be the year that everything clicks and our team catches the breaks that have eluded them in the past.
But this year feels different to most Baylor fans. Yes, the Bears are breaking in a new quarterback, but he is only new to the starting lineup. He has been under the tutelage of QB savant Art Briles for four years, despite just 14 measly career passes. The much maligned defense returns quite a bit of talent and the momentum of a very reputable finish to the season.
So with all of the hope and dreams at a fever pitch, what are some of the keys to the Bears living up to their own goals?
--- First and foremost, the Bears need to get out of their non-conference schedule undefeated and healthy. Their first three games are over a 4 week stretch and are all at home against non-BCS opponents. They also have a bye week before their conference schedule opener against West Virginia. So after a 5-week stretch, they will play their first BCS conference opponent.
Wofford, Buffalo, and Louisiana-Monroe are all capable teams, but should not pose much of a threat to a fully functioning and bought in Bears team. Predicting Baylor to go 3-0 in not a huge stretch, but Baylor has to get through the first act healthy and ready for conference play.
---Baylor has made a habit of starting and ending fast, but struggling in the middle. We have seen that the last two years. They are 6-0 in their first three games each year, and then just 1-7 in their middle four games. However, the back half of both of those seasons saw big winning streaks and a 9-1 record. The Bears schedule should fit perfectly with this 2-year trend. Baylor's schedule is back-end heavy with the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place teams in the Big 12 preseason media poll all after the calendar flips to November.
The biggest challenge in the first half of the year is a road game in Manhattan, KS against Kansas State on October 12th. But the Bears have West Virginia and Iowa State at home and then travel to Kansas in the first half of conference play. The final five games though are Oklahoma, Texas Tech, at Oklahoma State, at TCU, and Texas. If the Bears are hitting on all cylinders in November and December like they have done the past two years, the Bears will be ready for that brutal stretch.
---With both starting linebackers returning to the Bears, Bryce Hager and Eddie Lackey have to play like they did in the last five games of the 2012 season. With both being first year starters last year, it was a bit of a rollercoaster ride before that season ending stretch. Hager was benched for a 3-game stretch and only given another chance after a season ending injury knocked out his replacement. Even with that lull, he led the Big 12 in tackles. Lackey finished the year as a game breaker, capable of making the big play when you needed in the most, as Texas Tech and Oklahoma State remember.
With both players coming back for another go, they have to play at the heights of their ability. If the linebackers are controlling the running game, pressuring the quarterback with timely blitzes, and taking care of the underneath routes that have eaten up the Bears defense in the past, the Baylor defense might finally take that big step forward for a full year.
---The Bears spread offense has long been miscast as a finesse passing offense that just runs to setup the past. It is one of the big myths around spread offenses that quite simply is not true. Art Briles has always had more of a running offense, and that offense has always been led by a large and physical offensive line. Their offensive line has been a big strength the past few seasons, with 4 offensive linemen drafted into the NFL since 2010. This year, there are a few question marks as they have new starters at center, right guard and right tackle after the injury to returning right tackle Troy Baker knocked him out of the lineup.
With the shuffling of linemen to fill his role, the Bears will have three new starters to go with All-American candidates Cyril Richardson and Spencer Drango. The ability of the Bears line to play as a unit with so many changes is a key not only to keeping the running game going at a high level, but also a key to giving Bryce Petty time on those long play-action passes that are a staple of the Briles spread. Without that time, those long bombs to the streaking receivers Baylor fans have become accustomed to seeing end either in a sack or a dump off pass to an underneath route.
---There is a fine line between confidence and cockiness. The Bears right now appear to be very confident in their ability and what this year holds for them. There is nothing wrong with that at all, as long as it leads to a more focused and hungry team. It is when it turns into cockiness that leads to believing you will just show up and win or a lack of preparation that it can be a bad thing. The Bears have to make sure that they don't cross that line. They are new to this thing called high expectations, and sometimes you have to learn how to handle them.