OSU football: How Baylor went from one win to the top 25 in less than two years
Walking off the field after the last game of his first season at Baylor, Matt Rhule had an epiphany.
“It’ll never be this bad again,” the coach thought.
Of course, getting worse would’ve been tough.
The Bears finished that season with just one win. Eleven losses came by an average of two-plus touchdowns, including a season-ending beatdown by rival TCU.
To make matters worse, a fight had broken out during the game after a TCU defender tackled a Baylor ballcarrier into the Bears’ bench area. Benches darn near emptied. Coaches and officials had to separate players, and in the end, every player was issued an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
“It was embarrassing,” Rhule said.
He was referring to the fight, but he might as well have been referring to the 2017 season. Even though he'd seen small steps of progress, the results had been grim.
Still, Rhule knew better days were ahead — and now, they have arrived.
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As Baylor prepares to head to Oklahoma State, the Bears have a case for being the biggest surprise in college football. Two years after winning once, they are undefeated through six games, tied with Oklahoma atop the Big 12 standings and ranked 18th in the Associated Press poll.
How did the Bears get here?
With all the fallout from the rape scandal, Baylor football could’ve been in the Big 12 cellar for years. A decade in doldrums wasn’t out of the question.
The roster, after all, was a depleted disaster when Rhule arrived in December 2016. Numerous players had been dismissed, and after the scope of the scandal came to light, several more players left.
Recruiting had become nearly impossible.
It seemed likely Jesus might walk on the Brazos River before the Bears returned to the national rankings.
Baylor didn’t get back to this point without a concerted effort — players, coaches, even administrators — but the savior is Rhule. He changed the culture, which was a must, but he changed the foundation, too. He made outstanding decisions all along the way.
First, he brought several Texas high school coaches onto his staff. Rhule had no connections to the Lone Star State when he was hired — he played at Penn State and spent much of his coaching career on the East Coast — so hiring those locals helped build a bridge to fertile recruiting grounds.
Then, Rhule tweaked the schemes a bit, most notably the offense. The sideline-to-sideline, pass-happy offense employed by Art Briles wasn’t going to fly with a thin roster. Rhule just didn’t have the bodies, so he went with a more confined and methodical approach. Still throwing the ball, just not as frenetic as before.
The last piece of the puzzle was getting bigger, faster and stronger across the board. Some of that has happened organically as young players forced into duty two years ago have become veteran juniors and seniors now. But special attention has been paid to linemen.
The offensive line, for example, allowed 39 sacks last season, the most in the Big 12 for the second consecutive year. The Bears’ problems up front were only exacerbated when the Bears got behind early and were forced to throw to play catch up.
But now, Baylor has an offensive line that has allowed only nine sacks, second only to OU in the league, and a defensive line that has 23 sacks, the best mark in the conference.
“They’re a big, strong, physical, tough team,” Texas Tech coach Matt Wells said Monday, a couple days after his team lost to Baylor in double overtime. “They don’t make mistakes in terms of hurting themselves. They don’t serve it up on a platter for you.
“They make teams beat them.”
And so far this season, no one has.
Baylor fans are fired up. The announced attendance for Saturday’s game was 47,264, more than 2,000 higher the official capacity of McLane Stadium.
“I thought the crowd and the electricity … it was certainly the best I’ve seen it since I’ve been here,” Rhule said.
He had no way of knowing for sure Baylor would get back to that. Back to a packed house. Back to an excited fan base. Back to a football team capable of winning big ballgames.
The truth is, when Rhule told himself two years ago that things would never be worse, that might not have been as much of a revelation as it was an obligation.
He vowed to make things better.
“I knew that we had just weathered the storm,” Rhule said. “We’d gone through one of the hardest years I’ve had in coaching, our players have had. But we weathered it, so I knew that there was nowhere to go but up.”
Matt Rhule has made sure of it.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.
No. 18 Baylor at OSU
When: 3 p.m., Saturday
Where: Boone Pickens Stadium, Stillwater
TV: Fox (KOKH-25, Cox 12/HD 712, Dish 25, DirecTV 25, U-verse 25/HD 1025)
Radio: KXXY-FM 96.1