Coming off the Year of the Bear, Baylor's football team needed a strong year to sustain the legitimacy of the program. They got it in spades, finishing 7-5 in a so-called "rebuilding year, but it wasn't always easy.
There's a picture in SB Nation's database from last year's Kansas State game of Coach Kaz holding a banner over his head that says "Finish Strong." I've never found the right place to use it, but I absolutely love that picture. Not just because Kaz seems super-imposed and totally out of place in the image, but because of the message. "Finish Strong" is something of a mantra for this team and their preparation that they want to outwork and outlast their opponents so they can make their final push. Be better every week than they were the week before. They did it in 2011 by winning their last six games, including the first bowl game since I was in grade school. This year, with four league losses in a row at one point and all momentum from 2011 gone, it seemed like those words on Kaz's banner were about as close as we'd get. The possibility I wrote about of a 2011-esque turnaround seemed to fall by the wayside as Steele Jantz rained touchdowns on us.
That's where we were on Sunday, October 28 when the Baylor Bears woke up with a record of 3-4 and staring a schedule containing games against perennial power Oklahoma, top-5 Kansas State, last year's conference champion Oklahoma State, 2012 upstart Texas Tech, and the moribund Kansas Jayhawks in the face. We needed 3 wins in our last 5 games to have a chance at a bowl, and only the Kansas game, Baylor's Homecoming, seemed like one we were likely to get. Describing that point as anything other than depressing is an understatement.
I'll admit that at that point, the season seemed lost. I started a thread that night asking for submissions about who might be our next defensive coordinator since it seemed a foregone conclusion that the architect of one of the worst defenses college football had ever seen would probably lose his job. With our season's prospects waning, fan enthusiasm (as well as my own, I'll admit) started to wane. We knew we had one win clearly in our sights but that seemed like it; if we couldn't keep within 2 TDs of TCU or Iowa State, how were we going to beat Kansas State, Oklahoma, or either of the others? The path we needed just seemed impossible, as did keeping intact the best recruiting class in a generation.
Today, December 1, Baylor earned its fourth win in that five game stretch I so feared, finishing 7-5 on the season as a team nobody in the country probably wants to face right now. The 612 yards put up by the offense were enough to move it back into the #1 spot in the national rankings, and the defense, though still giving up yards by the bundle, has shown tremendous improvement in the pass rush and at creating turnovers. The team obviously never lost the belief that they could achieve their goals. They never wavered in their dedication to the idea of finishing strong. Looking back now, we should have seen it coming, since the same sort of thing happened last year. We (and I'm including myself) never should have doubted them in the first place.
When we talk about the story of 2012, we won't focus on the blowout win over Kansas. Everybody knows at this point that the Jayhawks are awful. We probably won't talk enough about the Oklahoma game we lost by 8 points since we did lose, even though it might be as good of a place as any to start. That's a good Sooners team we nearly beat at their place, and it might have been the genesis for our returned confidence. No, we'll probably talk about the next week, when Baylor returned home to face the #1-ranked Kansas State Wildcats led by Heisman favorite Collin Klein. Very few media members gave us a serious chance, but it turned out we had more than that. Not only did Baylor win that game, the Bears absolutely demolished the Snydercats offensively and, more importantly, on defense, as well. It was the first time this season that everything seemed to click. We got the blitzes we begged for and they worked beautifully. Our offensive line made mincemeat of the KSU front 7. Our defense looked like a unit that actually knew what it was doing. Suddenly, and with one fell swoop, everything looked possible again as our fans streamed onto the field.
Possible, but not probable, and I know I still doubted this team. After all, we didn't match up with our next two opponents, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, nearly as well as the Wildcats. Surely the KSU game was but a mirage in an otherwise lost season and as high a point as we were likely to achieve. With the results of the last two weeks, obviously that was wrong. The seniors honored today-- guys like Nick Florence, Terrence Williams, Jarred Salubi, Ivory Wade, Cameron Kaufhold, and Lanear Sampson-- leave as the first class since before World War II to go to a bowl three times in a row. We haven't won three games in a row since before Hawaii was a state. We've been playing football for over a century, and these things are just happening now.
I feel bad now looking back on it in hindsight that I didn't trust this team or our coaches to do what needed to be done, make the improvements that needed to be made, but they did it, and they deserve recognition. They made "finishing strong" a reality. Baylor Football can definitively say that it is back, and we have them, and of course guys like Robert Griffin III, Kendall Wright, and others, to thank for it.