Baylor University opens a glittering new football stadium in August on the banks of the Brazos River. Everything will be new. Including some glittering hardware.
The 2013 Big 12 championship trophy.
It’s a new day in Waco and it’s a new day in Big 12 football. A conference that once was ruled by OU and Texas now is egalitarian. Five years, five champions. Texas 2009, OU 2010, OSU 2011, Kansas State 2012, Baylor 2013.
And thus our annual ranking of the Big 12’s upcoming games has a new look. The showdown that figures to be the Big 12 game of the year? Baylor at Oklahoma, on Nov. 8.
“How about that,” Baylor coach Art Briles said.
“Just to put your university in the same sentence as a Big 12 champion in football says it all. It throws you into an elite level on the national perception and from the recruiting perception. That’s what our business is all about. It throws us in a completely different category.”
It’s a perfect scenario for Baylor. The championship was built with players recruited on the promise of a new stadium. The championship will be celebrated with players who get to take the field of that new stadium.
“You could have sat down and twiddled your pencil around for 2-3 minutes or 2-3 hours, and you couldn’t have written a better script how it’s turned out,” Briles said.
Six years ago, I ranked the Big 12’s games, one through 96, for the first time. The highest-ranked Baylor game was 29th, Baylor-Washington State. That was really a bone thrown to Baylor. The first Baylor conference game was Texas A&M in Waco, No. 31. The three worst conference games were all Baylor — OSU 69th, Texas 74th, Texas Tech 77th.
Now look at the Bears. OU-Baylor No. 1. Baylor-Texas No. 4. Baylor-Texas Tech No. 11. Baylor-Kansas State No. 14.
Briles has coached the Bears past the giddy heights of 1974 and 1980, when Baylor won Southwest Conference titles and reached the Cotton Bowl.
“When you’re in the fire, you don’t really look at what’s going on outside,” Briles said. “You just try to survive and do the best you can do. As far as wondering where it’s at, where I wanted it to be, I think we’ve certainly made strides.”
One downside to Baylor’s success is lists like this. Baylor is not stealth anymore. Bear hunting has become a Big 12 vocation. Where once the Baylor week was cause to schedule homecoming, now the Baylor date is circled on opponents’ schedules as strap-it-up week.
“We’re living with what we weren’t three years ago,” Briles said, “where everybody targets us, instead of us targeting other people. Now we’re a marked man. It makes us have to prepare mentally and physically different.”
It’s not that people play harder, the more renown the opponent. It’s what Briles said. That players are jacked up all week. More focused. More attuned, so that their Saturday energy pays off.
“I think every time they certainly give their best effort, their best energy,” Briles said of most teams. “I think the buildup that allows it to showcase as a premier game, the progress of our football program the last two, three years, now the buildup of anticipation is completely different.”
So will OU-Baylor prove to be the game of the year? Who knows? Sometimes I’m on point, sometimes not.
In 2008, 2009 and 2010, I had OU-Texas No. 1. Proved right in ’08, but not the next two years. In 2011, Bedlam; turns out it was the title game. In 2012, OU-West Virginia, which proved to be an instant classic but not terribly important. 2013, OSU-Texas; the Longhorns didn’t really hold up their end of the deal.
Anymore, it’s hard to pinpoint. Parity reigns in the Big 12.
“That’s proven out,” Briles said. “That’s not me saying it. That’s fact saying it. Just so many good football players across this section of the United States, particularly in Texas. Everybody’s got good players. They’ve got good support. Everybody’s facilities are pretty much on the same playing field. There’s just so much more parity in 2014 than there was in 2004.”
But the game of the year? The team picked to win the league, the Sooners, against the team that won it in 2013, Baylor, is a good place to start.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.