Sugar-Coated Season

Resilient Bears find success on and off the field

Sugar-Coated Season

In one of the most impressive turnarounds in modern college football history, Baylor became the first Power Five program to win at least 11 games two seasons removed from an 11-loss season. The Bears, picked to finish sixth in the Big 12 Conference preseason media poll, tied Oklahoma atop the league’s final regular-season standings at 8-1.

Baylor opened the season with nine consecutive wins, including dominating road performances at Kansas State and Oklahoma State. One week after a thrilling three-overtime win at TCU, the Bears hosted Oklahoma at McLane Stadium with ESPN’s College GameDay in attendance. The Sooners edged the Bears 34-31 in that game, and Oklahoma needed overtime to put away Baylor in the Big 12 Championship at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, the following month.

“We’re a tough, hard-nosed group, we find a way and we get better and better every year. This is just the beginning for us,” head coach Matt Rhule said. “What a great time to be at Baylor. You have a chance to be around great student-athletes in all our sports. We want to do our part to contribute to the championship culture here at Baylor, both on and off the field.”

With the Sooners representing the Big 12 in the College Football Playoff, the Bears earned an invitation to the 86th annual Allstate Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. It marked Baylor’s second appearance in a New Year’s Six bowl and third top-level bowl game in seven years.  It is the program’s second appearance at the Sugar Bowl (the first was in 1957, which the Bears won 13-7 over No. 2 Tennessee). 

Rhule pointed to the endurance and competitiveness of the seniors on the team to earn the trip to the Sugar Bowl. At one point in their careers, they had played under three different coaches and had lost 16 of 18 games.

“That can have a real effect on people. But, these guys were tough, they were hard-working, they competed in everything they did,” he said. “As juniors, they got us to a bowl game and won the bowl game.

“And then this year, as seniors, to finish the regular season as the No. 7 team in the country with the opportunity to play the University of Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, there’s not many stories written like that,” Rhule said. “And it’s been their character and their resolve and their toughness. I’ll get some credit…but it’s really been the players and, most importantly, the seniors that have made that happen.”

In a news conference following the bowl selection, Rhule shared his excitement about being in the Sugar Bowl, which happens to be the backdrop for one of his earliest memories of college football. As a 7-year-old Penn State fan, Rhule remembers watching the Nittany Lions win the national championship over Georgia in 1983.

“It’s a lifelong sort of bucket-list item for me to take part in the [Sugar Bowl] game. I had a chance as a player to play in the Rose Bowl and Fiesta Bowl, all tremendous experiences,” he said. “But, having [the 1983 Sugar Bowl] as one of my earliest memories of football, of what bowl games mean when family and friends come together to root their teams on whether in person or far, far away…to me, it will be an amazing experience to play in one of the greatest bowl games in history and to take a Baylor team that has done something really special over the last three years.”

The resilience and commitment exuded by the players plus the University’s pledge to Preparing Champions for Life is energizing the Baylor Family — all things which should be important to recruits and their families. 

“We are going in the right direction: academically, athletically, socially. [Recruits] should see that if you come to Baylor, you are going to get our best. We are going to develop you and grow you,” Rhule said. “You will get a great education. You will be changed. When you go home, you will be better than when you got here.” 

As the season wrapped up, honors came for the program’s coaches and players.  

Rhule was named 2019 Big 12 Coach of the Year by the league’s coaches as well as by numerous media outlets, including the AP. Additionally, Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Snow was one of five finalists for the Broyles Award, which honors the nation’s top assistant coach.

Baylor defensive end James Lynch was named Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and Defensive Lineman of the Year, joining Andrew Billings (2015) as the only Bears to win both awards. Lynch also was named a 2019 first-team All-America selection by the Walter Camp Football Foundation and USA Today. Defensive lineman Bravvion Roy, wide receiver Denzel Mims and Lynch were named first-team All-Big 12. Lynch joined Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard and Oklahoma wide receiver CeeDee Lamb as the conference’s only unanimous first-team selections.

Success also came for the student-athletes’ work off the field. A program-record 30 players were named Academic All-Big 12, including a program-best 18 first-team selections.