"Baylor could just as easily be 8-0," Mack Brown said, "so don't buy into the idea that they don't have good players, or that this game should be easy. You start looking at what Baylor has accomplished over what they've done the past few years, this is not the same Baylor team."
Relatively speaking. The Baylor program has been upgraded from truly awful to mediocre, but it's perfectly capable of hanging with the Horns as long as Texas lets it. Or, until Vince Young decides that enough is enough and determines to carry the team on his shoulder pads.
Truth be told, I've never heard anyone associated with the Baylor program point to that OT win against A&M last year as the turning point in Guy Morriss' short tenure. In other words, you still hear how hungry they are for a program-establishing W that proclaims, 'We've Arrived.' That opportunity presents itself this Saturday, 11:30 a.m., at Floyd Casey Stadium.
"They can line up with anybody they play and be head-to-head with their front seven and your front seven," Brown told me with a straight face.
Well, up to a point -- and that point will probably come early in the third quarter against Texas. Last year, Texas held a 14-7 lead midway through the second quarter before responding with 23 unanswered points in an otherwise uninspired 44-14 win.
The Baylor program is obviously on the rebound and it was great to see Morriss' bunch make the Aggies sweat for a second straight year. His program has proven that it can win a conference game on the road while taking A&M and Oklahoma (albeit without Adrian Peterson) to the wire. But it is still years away from operating with the personnel that Texas brings to the table.
Stranger things have happened in Waco, as I am old enough to remember where I was, and what I was doing, when first informed of the Miracle on the Brazos shocker in 1974. (I was buying a Three Dog Night album for $4.99 at the Gibson's Store on Burnet Road in Austin when the score was announced over the public address system.)
The confidence and swagger that Morriss has brought to this formerly downtrodden program makes him a legitimate Conference Coach of the Year candidate, but it would take a near-miracle for his club to upend a Texas team determined not to be as unfocused as it was during the first half at Oklahoma State.
The good people of Waco are going to have wait before uncorking their Dr. Pepper bottles at Texas' expense. Otherwise, the most interesting subplot this week is how well Ramonce Taylor performs in what shapes up as his most productive outing at RB. I'm also looking for evidence that Jamaal Charles is back to his go-the-distance self after he told me that his ankle is well and that he's laying off the sodas. Texas 51, Baylor 10.
Pearle -- That first half at Oklahoma State showed just how scary the rest of this season is going to be watching the Horns grind out the last few games, fighting off challenges from bottom feeders as they battle to keep their national title hopes alive, all the while having to chalk up enough style points to stay in the BCS top two.
It felt like Halloween had come a couple days early last Saturday watching Texas' undefeated season teeter on the brink of destruction. That first half trick played by the Cowboys on the Horns was no treat to watch. Like most of you, though, and thank goodness, like the team and coaches, I never got to the point of panicking. I always felt like the team that beat Michigan in the Rose, Ohio State in the Shoe and Oklahoma in the Cotton, would slowly but surely come alive and take the game over. Sure enough, before you could even get back in your seat after half time, there went Vince for 80 yards and a TD to open a completely dominating second half, and the natural order was restored.
So maybe that gut-check performance helps Texas down the stretch. As some of the Texas players have said this week, the OSU game may well have been what the team needed, a wake-up call they answered emphatically. They learned that even the least talented of teams are still talented, and unless Texas comes focused and executes, they can get their heads handed too them on any given Saturday.
Another classic example comes this weekend as banged up Texas travels to Waco. Talk about a trap game. Baylor -- yes, the Bears, the perennial doormat of the Big 12, the team that made losing conference games an art form -- suddenly is playing competitive, physical football. Baylor has nothing to lose and everything to gain playing Texas, and will come out and try to smash the Horns in the mouth on both sides of the ball. If Texas comes out groggy with the 11:30 a.m. kickoff and waits around for Vince to save the day for them a second week in a row, they may find themselves in a dogfight for four quarters. Just ask Texas Tech, which entered the fourth quarter last Saturday in Waco with a mere 6-0 lead.
My feeling is that the Texas offense may find tough sledding trying to run the football early, with Jamaal Charles still fighting his way back to early season form and Ramonce Taylor getting used to playing tailback again. Vince Young, as has been true most of the season, will need to be effective passing the ball, and eliminate the costly turnovers that allowed OSU to race out to that 28-9 lead last week. He also will need to freelance with his feet enough to keep the Bear defense off-balance.
Defensively, the Horns should be able to dominate Baylor, and allow the offense time to get its rhythm. Texas Tech, not exactly known as a defensive heavyweight, shut Baylor out just last Saturday, so the Horns ain't exactly facing Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush this weekend. Nevertheless, Oklahoma State proved that with a good game plan and execution, a team can put up points on Texas, so the Horns will have to be disciplined and disruptive, and create some turnovers to give the Texas offense a few short fields.
An improved Baylor will give Texas a game Saturday, a much better game than most anticipated coming into the season. But Texas, sharpened by the near-death experience at Stillwater last week, will control this one from start to finish. Texas 34, Baylor 10.
Ross -- I witnessed the carnage in Waco the last time the Bears beat the Horns. That, of course, was the final stop on the '97 goalpost tour around the Big 12 -- if memory serves, after wins over Texas, the goalposts came down in Stillwater, Columbia and Waco that season -- and one of the last games at the UT helm for head coach John Mackovic. Although Mackovic's fate was almost certainly already sealed by that early November day (Texas came in at 3-4 on the season), the loss to Baylor punctuated the deal. Simply put, Texas can not lose to Baylor in football. Period.
Mack Brown, who took over for Mackovic a few weeks after the flop at Floyd Casey, has returned normalcy to the series. After a competitive contest in '98 (a 30-20 Longhorn win), Brown's squads own three shutouts over the Bears and have lit the scoreboard to the tune of 50 points a game. But last season, Baylor played the Horns to within 30 (44-14 final score), its closest brush since that '98 game. And, by all accounts, the Bears are an improved, physical team this season, head coach Guy Morriss' third in Waco.
Much of that improvement can be traced to former Longhorn great 'Super' Bill Bradley's defense. A glance at Baylor's defensive two-deep isn't going to reveal many bluechip recruits, but the unit is ranked in the middle of the Big 12 pack and the top half of schools nationally in yards allowed, rushing yards allowed, and points allowed. And just last week, Bradley's guys turned in an arguably better defensive performance versus Texas Tech than did Gene Chizik's guys the week before. Not too shabby for the little private school up I-35.
The flipside of the coin is that the Baylor offense is averaging just 328.8 yards and 22 points per game, near the bottom of the Big 12 and nationally in both categories. And the Red Raiders pitched a shutout in Waco last week. (Of course, we all saw what previous performances, averages and rankings meant last week in Stillwater.)
I think ultimately the question comes down to whether Texas shows up this week ready to play from the opening gun. The Bears can keep this one close IF the Longhorn defense doesn't get started till 1:00 p.m., or about halftime after the 11:30 kick. Otherwise, Baylor simply does not have the offense to keep pace with Texas.
Baylor may indeed have its best team since the mid-90s, but Texas has its best team since the early 80s, a national championship-caliber club. The Bears are 4-4. Improved? Yes. Competitive? Possibly. Gonna win? No. And if the Bears are looking to '97 for inspiration, they need to stop it right now. Other than the uniforms on their backs, there is simply no comparison between the group that Mackovic brought to Waco eight years ago and the one that Brown will lead into battle Saturday. Brown's Longhorn teams understand the reality that eluded Mackovic: Texas can not lose to Baylor in football. Texas 42, Baylor 13.