Had two or three more plays gone the Bears' way last fall, the Baylor football team would likely have earned its first bowl game appearance since 1994. As it was, the Bears finished 4-8, losing three games by a touchdown or less. This fall, the expectation is to improve on that and earn that elusive bowl bid.
"We really feel good about the direction we are going and about how we are going to get there," head coach Art Briles said. "What we have to do is turn it into reality on the field, but that is going to happen and we are very confident of that."
Throughout the offseason, most of the buzz around Baylor football has centered on sophomore quarterback Robert Griffin III. One ESPN.com writer called the reigning Big 12 Freshman of the Year "the fastest man ever to play quarterback in college football," though the former all-America hurdler did not participate in track this spring in order to focus on football. In just his second year, Griffin was named to the watch lists for the Davey O'Brien Award and the Manning Award, which each recognize the nation's top quarterback, as well as the Maxwell Award, given annually to the nation's top all-around player.
Other names to remember on offense this fall: senior J.D. Walton, a preseason Rimington Award nominee as one of the nation's top centers; junior transfer Danny Watkins, who will try to fill the shoes left by first-round pick Jason Smith at left tackle; junior Jay Finley, the fifth-leading rusher in the Big 12 last year; and sophomore Kendall Wright, a 2008 honorable mention Freshman All-American at receiver.
On defense, the Bears are again led by a pair of preseason All-Big 12 selections in seniors Joe Pawelek and Jordan Lake. Pawelek, a returning All-American and Academic All-American, made the watch list for the Bednarik Award (given to the nation's top defensive player) and anchors the linebacking corp. Lake, a preseason candidate for the Jim Thorpe Award honoring the top defensive back in the country, headlines the secondary at safety.
The duo is joined by another preseason all-conference honoree in junior Phil Taylor, who was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Year by the league's coaches in July. Taylor, a transfer from Penn State, weighs in at 6-foot-4, 355 pounds, and is expected to start at tackle.
Junior punter Derek Epperson continues to follow in the footsteps of former Baylor punter (and current Pittsburgh Steeler) Daniel Sepulveda. Epperson, a Ray Guy Award semifinalist who finished among the top 10 in punting average last year, was named to the preseason All-Big 12 team and the watch list for this year's Guy Award, joining Griffin, Walton, Pawelek and Lake on the long list of potential Baylor all-Americans.
When they take the field September 5 at Wake Forest in the nationally televised (ABC/ESPN2) season opener, the Bears will be sporting a new look designed by Nike. Pictured above, Baylor will have three jersey colors to choose from, as well as two different colors of pants and two different helmets. Traditionalists need not fear; the gold helmet is expected to remain the Bears' primary headgear.