Baylor learned a year ago never to overlook an overmatched opponent

Aug 31, 2018

Matt Rhule doesn’t want his Baylor team dwelling on last season.

“I think sometimes when we focus on the past, we end up being victims of that,” Rhule said. “Last year is over; we have to go play.”

But he does want the Bears to learn lessons from a 1-11 year.

The first task is to win the winnable games. Build momentum through September, then hope something clicks in October and November. Maybe there’s magic. Maybe there are as many heartbreaking moments as happy ones.

Maybe Baylor reverses its on-field misfortunes. Maybe the Bears win more than they lose. It all starts with a first game.

Baylor meets lightly regarded Abilene Christian on Saturday night at McLane Stadium. Surely, Rhule will be able to enjoy his first win in Waco. Baylor fans haven’t been able to celebrate a home victory since a homecoming afternoon against Kansas on Oct. 15, 2016.

Last year’s home opener was against Liberty, the FCS school coached by Turner Gill, the former star Nebraska quarterback who never was able to beat Baylor when he led programs at Kansas and Buffalo. But the Flames upset the Bears 48-45.

FCS wins over their more formidable FBS opponents happen, but they are rare. Liberty’s victory was one of nine FCS wins over an FBS program last season. There has been one upset so far this season, with California-Davis, led by former Colorado coach Dan Hawkins, knocking off San Jose State.

The shock of losing to Liberty probably played a part in a 17-10 home defeat to UTSA. Then the Bears lost to Duke on the road. They were competitive in their Big 12 home opener against Oklahoma and nearly upset West Virginia.

But being competitive is no longer an acceptable benchmark.

“Coach has been preaching, ‘What’s next?’” receiver Marques Jones said this week. “So, no, last year’s opener isn’t on our minds.

“Last year, we were just learning about the process,” he said. “Now we’ve had a whole year. It would be a real confidence booster to go out and see the fruits of our labor.”

Baylor’s offense should be better than a year ago.

The receiving group, led by Denzel Mims, is one of the deepest in the Big 12. Mims averaged 90.6 receiving yards a game last fall, tops among returning wideouts in the Big 12.

The most intriguing player could be Jalen Hurd, the former star tailback at Tennessee. Hurd rushed for 2,638 yards in his two-plus seasons with the Volunteers, which was sixth-highest in school history. But Hurd quit the team midway through the 2016 season. He decided to switch positions to receiver and transfer to Baylor. He redshirted last season.

The Bears now have an experienced quarterback and offensive line. Their defense is more seasoned. It’s time to figure out whether they’re good enough to win more than one game.

Rhule said he’s probably telling his team the same message Nick Saban is preaching at Alabama. Get off to a fast start. Don’t overlook opponents. Believe in the system and the work the team did through the spring and preseason camp.

“To me, one of the keys to this football team, but keys in life: Are you going to wait to have success to be confident, or are you going to have confidence before you have success?” Rhule said. “No one can give you confidence. … Kids know when confidence is real, and it comes from demonstrated ability.”