The current landscape of college football in Texas is alien to those clad in Burnt Orange. Once infinitesimal, Baylor is now attempting to vacuum all of the top skill players into the void known as Waco. The Bears are building something destructive, an unstoppable force that has eviscerated all who came before it. It’s en route and bearing the number seven. For the unranked Longhorns, what was once considered science fiction is now reality, and it is approaching at light speed.
Art Briles’ Baylor is the Millennium Falcon on warp speed. Since his first year in 2008, Briles has produced two teams that have finished the season in the Top 25, beaten Texas three out of the last four tries, fielded the first-ever Heisman trophy winner in school history, reached the Bears’ first bowl win in 32 years, won a conference championship outright for the first time in 33 years and helped push for the construction of the sparkling monument of progress known as McLane Stadium.
In 2014, the offense is ranked as one of the best in the country in scoring, with Bryce Petty throwing for 915 yards as if it was just a walk in the park. The private college is on its way to retaining its status as the brightest star in the Texas constellation of the Big 12.
Austin, on the other hand, is like a dying planet hanging by a small cosmic pull to stay in orbit.
Charlie Strong was hired for the solid work that elevated Louisville to another stratosphere of national relevance. The hope of the Longhorns is that Strong’s track record will translate to an overhaul of what UT has become. That overhaul has included a complete culture change marked by what seems like endless dismissals as a result of Strong’s zero tolerance and directness unforeseen in the Mack Brown era. The results thus far have varied.
Currently, the Longhorns are 2-2, with the only wins notched against lowly North Texas and Charlie Weis’ retirement shelter of Kansas. The losses are a mixed bag, with BYU proving that the Texas run defense still can’t stop any life form that runs out of the backfield. UCLA was held to 20 points and only won by a margin of three, which gives some sort of moral victory to this team without an identity. Yet, Texas still isn’t the Texas of yesteryear. Strong is fully capable of necessary course correction; the biggest obstacle is the time in which he was chosen to do it.
The ascencion of Baylor during what seems like its halcyon days spells trouble for the Longhorns. Ever since Robert Griffin III’s magnificent campaign to Radio City Music Hall, Briles has seen the Bears’ recruiting rankings skyrocket into unforeseen heights. In 2011, Baylor had commits from only one 4-star player and twelve 3-star players. In 2014, they had five 4-star commits and 18 3-star commits. That’s a span of three years in which the number of commits over 2-stars jumped up by 43%. In terms of the commits who signed, 16 out of the 18 3-Stars signed while four out of the five 4-Stars also put their names on the dotted line.
To put this in perspective with the pull of Austin, Baylor has never cracked the Top 10, or even the Top 20, in recruiting rankings since the metric existed to compare classes. Texas is consistently pulling in five-star recruits, a feat Briles has not pulled off in his tenure. This is one of the few off-the-field advantages that the program still maintains.
There has been ground ceding slowly, however, over the past few months towards College Station, where the prestige of playing in the SEC and the star power of Johnny Football have bumped Texas A&M above its former in-state rival. This could prove to be more of a benefit for the Bears in conference play if the Aggies start hoarding more of Texas’ prized prospects. This is ultimately a net loss for Texas, which has to play the buzzsaw of Baylor before turning around and trying to out-recruit them as well as A&M, which has the benefit of more broadcast coverage than a space shuttle landing. Of course, the only way to ensure the scenario does not become an unlivable hellscape for Texas is to win immediately.
Winning is easier said in pre-game speeches and message boards than in actual play. As the weekend approaches, Strong has an opportunity to tamp down a team that has already shifted gears to cruise control, albeit a cruise control feature that is still set on warp speed. The Longhorns are ranked 20th in points allowed with UCLA shimmering as the biggest defensive statement. It was also a loss and one that had a Neuheisel on raised shoulders.
Baylor is a 17-point favorite on the road, and for good reason. Freshman KD Cannon, one of 2014’s 4-Star signings, has shredded opposing secondary units for 519 yards. Shock Linwood has torched lines of scrimmage with 310 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. It will take a groaning amount of turnovers and a stalling offense to get this thing to fall in Texas’ favor. It would be one of the hardest wins on their schedule, with even bigger implications off the field. Some Longhorn fans will shrug and stubbornly say, “It’s just Baylor,” a refusal to plainly admit the strangeness of this universe and its bleak reality.