USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Want the Big 12 title belt? Then come and take it. It's in Waco, slung over Art Briles' shoulder, and Baylor isn't giving it up without a fight.
The belt is an actual belt, by the way – no metaphors here, though it'd be a tidy little one at that. Baylor wears it with pride, the just reward of the program's first outright conference championship since 1980, and wants the rest of the conference to know: If you plan on taking it, plan on getting dirty.
"We're the champions," Briles told USA TODAY Sports in July. "And then if you're going to get it, it's going to be a damn fight getting it.
"This is who we are. We're holding the belt. It ain't coming off without a fight. There's going to be a little rumble going on."
At least the rest of the Big 12 won't struggle finding the Bears: They're at the top of the Big 12, looking down at the rest of the pack, waiting and angling for a fight. Who wants a piece?
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
Would an 8-4 regular season be a disappointment? Well, maybe. But it's still a one-win improvement upon last season, which is nice, and it seems clear to me that Baylor will head into November right in the mix for a BCS berth. That's the new Baylor.
In a nutshell: One of the greatest offenses in the history of this sport: Baylor set a new Football Bowl Subdivision record for scoring in averaging 52.38 points per game, the most notable of the 82 school, conference and national marks set by the Bears' prolific attack. The offense only came up lame once, in the frigid environs of Stillwater, Okla., and otherwise stormed through the regular season with furious anger upon all those defenses unfortunate enough to face Baylor's wrath. Among the unfortunates: Iowa State, sadly, and the Cyclones should have stayed home; Texas Tech, which idolizes Baylor's growth into a monster; Oklahoma, sad and lost; and Texas, losers of three of four in the once-lopsided series.
High point: Oklahoma led, briefly, before the Bears rolled off 21 points in a row to end the first half.
Low point: Central Florida, maybe, but Briles spoke of how the loss could benefit his program in the long run. The better pick is Oklahoma State, because Baylor could have earned a spot in the BCS National Championship Game with an undefeated regular season.
Tidbit: Baylor brings the nation's sixth-longest home winning streak into McLane Stadium, the sparkling new facility that opens against SMU on Aug. 31. The Bears have won 10 in a row at home, trailing Northern Illinois (26 in a row), South Carolina (18), Stanford (16), Ohio State (15) and Fresno State (13).
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Neil Young albums
2. After the Gold Rush
3. Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere
4. On the Beach
5. Harvest Moon
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: It's said that Bryce Petty can be rattled by pressure, which makes sense for a simple reason: Every quarterback can be rattled by pressure, hence the meaning of the word, and it's true in the same sense that every drop of water is wet. Besides, in those two games frequently cited as examples – Oklahoma and Texas Tech – Petty tossed six touchdowns without an interception and averaged 9.46 yards per attempt; it should also be said that Baylor won both games by a combined score of 104-46. To make a long story short, the only way to stop Bryce Petty is with help from above: Oklahoma State leaned on the cold rain and whipping wind of late-fall Stillwater to slow down the Bears' ferocious attack, and that helps future opponents only if each can influence our planet's meteorological patterns. Petty enters his final season as one of our three leading Heisman Trophy contenders, a lock for some sort of postseason honors, a cinch for 4,500 yards and 40 touchdowns, the leader of Baylor's offense and very clearly one of the elite players in all of college football.
The receiver corps will be without Clay Fuller (32 receptions for 512 yards) until some point in October, give or take, after the senior suffered a broken collarbone. That's a bit of blow to the starting group, where Fuller was a key cog, but – and with all due respect to the senior – Baylor has the weapons to more than survive during his absence. Meet one of the top receiver units in college football: Antwan Goodley (71 for 1,339), Levi Norwood (47 for 733), Corey Coleman (35 for 527), Jay Lee (22 for 309) and a healthy Fuller give Petty and the Bears' passing game a wealth of options perhaps unrivaled in the FBS. Goodley's the man, obviously, and an All-American at that, while Coleman and Fuller should help Baylor replicate – at least in some degree – Tevin Reese's field-stretching tendencies. There's more: Baylor's young core of freshmen and sophomores is impressive, to put it lightly, and it's likely that two of the group of Davion Hall, K.D. Cannon, Quan Jones, Kaleb Moore and Lynx Hawthorne make an impact behind the top quintet.
The running game loses a pair of important pieces – Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin – but shouldn't miss a beat. Sophomore Shock Linwood (881 yards) takes over as the Bears' primary back after splitting time with Seastrunk a season ago; after shining as the lead option against Oklahoma and Texas Tech, there's little doubt Linwood's up to the task. He'll be helped by fellow sophomore Devin Chafin (295 yards), who brings a little more size to the backfield – essentially giving Baylor the same quick-and-strong combination Seastrunk and Martin brought to the table a year ago. The two concerns, if you look at it skeptically: one, Linwood won't have Seastrunk's explosiveness, because few do; and two, the Bears will need freshmen Johnny Jefferson and Terence Williams to produce in reserve roles.
Defense: Baylor's defense cares about two things: one, how many yards per play it allows, and two, how often it can force three downs and a punt. Everything else is secondary. This mentality won't change as the Bears move to a slightly reworked defensive cast, with new starters along each level, and shouldn't impact the way this defense bends, bends and holds firm against teams inside and out of the Big 12. One thing has changed, however: Baylor's defense is now strongest closer to the line of scrimmage and at its most questionable as we move toward the secondary. While the inexperienced cast in the backfield is an issue, we can make the case that a strong and deep front four will do wonders for the Bears' pass defense.
Briles has called this the best defensive line of his tenure – and it's very hard to disagree. While two starters are lost at end, the Bears' former reserves, both of all-conference quality, are ready to step up a level. One, former Penn State transfer Shawn Oakman (33 tackles, 12.5 for loss), will be an absolute monster in a full-time starting role. His teammate at end, junior Jamal Palmer (38 tackles, 5.0 sacks), is less imposing physically but a perfect fit for the Bears' edge-rush scheme. In short: Baylor's two new starting ends will be all-conference picks. A third potential selection, sophomore Andrew Billings, anchors the interior on the nose. But the story inside is one of depth, with Billings, junior Beau Blackshear (33 tackles, 2.5 sacks), sophomore Byron Bonds, junior Suleiman Masumbuko and sophomore Javonte Magee giving the Bears five reliable option at both spots. There's absolutely no doubt this is the best line of Briles' turn in Waco; it's also one of the best lines in the Big 12.
The linebacker corps takes a step back without Eddie Lackey. Yet a full season from senior Bryce Hager (71 tackles) will help, clearly, and not merely in terms of his production but his ability to lead the entire defense from his spot in the middle. Baylor could even replicate a portion of Lackey's game-changing production with the combination of sophomore Aiavion Edwards, who did a nice job in a reserve role last fall, and redshirt freshman Taylor Young, once a promising recruit. The Bears should also find a way to carve out some playing time for JUCO transfer Grant Campbell, who enters the opener as Hager's backup in the middle. Senior Collin Brence has a fairly firm grasp on the hybrid linebacker-safety role, followed by sophomore Patrick Levels, and it's probably safe to assume the defense is going to suffer a dip in production at this crucial position.
You can separate the secondary into two parts: Baylor has a sturdy back end, with one returning starter and an ex-reserve ready for the job, and a very uncertain situation at cornerback. Let's begin at safety, where returning starter Terrell Burt (61 tackles, 2 interceptions) will be joined by sophomore Orion Stewart, who really impressed during his two-start stint as a redshirt freshman – and, in general, Baylor should feel very good about this tandem. But there are some major youth issues at cornerback, where the Bears head into the home stretch still evaluating the group of JUCO transfers Chris Sanders and Tion Wright and sophomores Xavien Howard, Terrence Singleton and Ryan Reid. Enrolling early helped Sanders, a former Georgia signee set for a starting job, and the Bears are high on both Howard and Singleton, the latter a converted quarterback. That's your top three. Two reasons for optimism amid the pessimism: one, the Bears won't be tested until October, so there's time for the secondary to come together, and two, this line is going to lend a major hand.
Special teams: This defense also lands a boost from senior punter Spencer Roth, an All-American candidate. The Bears may replace kicker Aaron Jones with redshirt freshman Chris Callahan and improve, such did Jones struggle at times during his senior season. The Norwood-led return game is an obvious strength and the coverage teams typically stout, though Roth's booming leg sometimes puts the punt teams in questionable situations.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Offensive line: The line loses an All-American along the interior but returns two key bookend tackles from injury: Troy Baker, an all-league pick in 2012, is back on the strong side after missing most of last season, and Spencer Drango, a first-team all-conference pick last fall, is back in the fold after late-season back surgery. That solidifies the exterior, with Drango anchoring Petty's blind side, and allows the Bears to focus on open spots at left guard and center. Right guard will again go to Desmine Hilliard, himself an all-league contender after a strong first season in the starting lineup; the combination of Hilliard and Baker is dynamite in the running game. Sophomore Kyle Fuller is the likely solution at center, where Baylor must replace Stefan Huber, though senior Tyler Edwards would be a solid substitute if Fuller struggles in the move into the starting lineup. Then there's left guard, and Baylor can either go with LaQuan McGowan's size and strength – he weighs more than a normal person, less than a Buick – or, in former Hawaii transfer Blake Muir, a lineman with some starting experience. The line isn't a question mark by any means; it's merely the biggest question mark on the nation's best offense, and it's all relative.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Oklahoma: That Baylor has never won in Norman would raise eyebrows if not for the idea that anything on Baylor's pre-Briles résumé is useless as a tool for projection. But it's a big game, obviously, what with the Big 12 and College Football Playoff implications, and it's not a stretch to say the winner secures very firm advantage of the conference race heading into the final weeks of the regular season.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: I think Baylor enjoys its perch atop the Big 12 and has no plans of giving it up anytime soon, thank you very much. Come and take it, but bring some gauze and some bandages, let alone a defense with the nuts and bolts needed to slow down the nation's most unstoppable offensive attack. There's simply no opponent on this schedule capable of getting stops on a consistent basis: Oklahoma's going to try – and perhaps succeed, to be fair – but the Bears seem poised to be even more dynamic, if humanly possible, and that's a devastatingly painful idea for the rest of the conference to consider.
Here's how you stop Baylor: rain, wind, cold, prayer – in no particular order. A senior quarterback. One of the nation's best receiver corps. An electric running game. A very stout front five. The system. It's a confluence of factors that might lead to the impossible: Baylor's offense could be even better.
If so, this offense will more than offset any step back on defense; it'll carry the Bears all the way through the Big 12 and into the College Football Playoff. Even with Oklahoma coming on the road, an undefeated regular season and top-four finish must be viewed as a fairly possible scenario. I do think Baylor's going to win the Big 12. I'm a little hesitant to peg the Bears for a perfect season as a result of the defense, which could show up for eight weeks and then, on a random Saturday, fall to pieces against a beatable opponent. There are issues: Baylor's line is great, true, but the second level's going to miss Lackey and the secondary is extremely young and unproven at cornerback. At the same time, this defense is clearly going to get better as the year wears on – something Oklahoma needs to consider in advance of the Nov. 8 date in Norman.
Let's say 11 wins during the regular season and another Big 12 title. Fair? Let's also call Baylor a team that could drop 40-plus on every team on this schedule and barely break a sweat; let's call Baylor a potential monster; let's call Baylor a bunch of sharks sniffing blood in the water at the thought of playing Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas State and the rest of the Big 12. Who wants a piece of Baylor? I don't think anyone in the Big 12 wants anything to do with Baylor and this offense. I don't blame them.
Dream season: Baylor goes undefeated and earns a spot in the playoff.
Nightmare season: The Bears lose to Oklahoma, Kansas State and Oklahoma State to finish fourth in the Big 12.
Who's No. 7? Before joining the university, this program's head trainer spent a dozen years in a professional football league outside the NFL.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM 64-1