The Baylor Bears, who have been little more than an afterthought in the minds of most college football fans over the years, started to turn the corner in 2008 when a supremely-gifted athlete named Robert Griffin III was named the starting quarterback by new head coach Art Briles.
Originally agreeing to play for Briles at the University of Houston, Griffin followed his coach to Waco when he assumed the head coaching job there. The first couple of years with the talented, yet unrefined signal-caller at the helm were rough ones, at least with regard to wins and losses, as the Bears logged a pair of 4-8 ledgers, winning just three of their 16 Big 12 Conference bouts along the way.
Despite his team's lack of success on the field, Griffin flashed signs of brilliance and was named the Big 12's Offensive Freshman of the Year in '08. Baylor went into the 2009 campaign expecting even greater things from its star QB, but a serious knee injury in week 3 sidelined Griffin for the remainder of the season. As a redshirt sophomore in 2010, he would lead the team to a 7-6 record and a berth in the Texas Bowl -- its first postseason trip since 1994.
With Griffin continuing his progression, the Bears enjoyed unprecedented success in 2011, logging only the second 10-win season in school history and earning its second straight bowl invite. 'RG3' as he has come to be known, completed 72 percent of his passes for nearly 4,300 yards, 37 TDs and only 6 INTs, while adding just shy of 700 yards and 10 scores on the ground. As a result, Griffin was named Baylor's first-ever Heisman Trophy winner.
Griffin gave up his final year of college eligibility and was the No. 2 pick in the most recent NFL Draft, so Briles has decided that senior Nick Florence will be the guy to lead his offense in 2012. At 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, Florence isn't the physical specimen his record-setting predecessor was, but he has the skill and confidence needed to lead the Bears to another successful campaign.
Despite knowing that there will likely be a huge drop-off in production, Briles has faith in his new field general, "I have a tremendous amount of confidence in the passion, the energy, the drive, the fearlessness that he [Florence] is going to bring to the table for us," He continued, "The thing he's gotta do is stay within himself and not get caught up in listening to anybody else or anything else and staying focused in the moment, focused in the situation."
Replacing another standout performer in RB Terrance Ganaway (1,566 yards, 21 TDs) won't be easy either, but Jarred Salubi is expected to carry the mantle as he enters his fifth year on campus. Another guy to keep an eye on is Lache Seastrunk, who sat out last year after transferring in from Oregon. Seastrunk you may remember, was at the center of a scandal involving Texas-based recruiter Will Lyles.
Also missing in action is Baylor's all-time leading receiver, Kendall Wright (108 receptions, 1,663 yards, 14 TDs in '11), although the Bears have a pair of top-notch pass catchers ready to step up, as seniors Terrance Williams and Lanear Sampson combined for 101 grabs, 1,529 yards and 14 TDs last season.
The Baylor defense gave up a school-record 6,350 yards last year, so vast improvement will be necessary for the team as a whole to be successful this season. However, with eight starters back, including the entire secondary, the hope is that defensive coordinator Phil Bennett will be able to put his guys in better position to make the plays necessary to keep tough games close.
While acknowledging that there is certainly work to be done, Briles likes the way his defense closed out the 2011 season, "Our last six games where we went 6-0 shows you how hard it is to win games at the end of the year. Our defense made critical plays at critical points to help us win football games."
Still, Florence is the most important piece to the puzzle as without consistent and often game-changing quarterback play, a team has very little chance to win. Florence hasn't played much the last two years, but filling in for an injured Griffin in '09 as a true freshman, he completed 165-of-266 pass attempts for 1,786 yards, 6 TDs and 9 INTs. He is just 15-of-24 for 206 yards and 2 TDs since.
His best game of late occurred in relief of Griffin last year, as he played the second half of a wild win over Texas Tech, throwing for 151 yards and 2 TDs. That appearance cost Florence a shot at red-shirting the season, but to him it was well worth it, "If I'm going to remove (the red shirt), let's remove it like that."
Briles and the Bears hope there are a slew of moments like the one enjoyed by Florence against the Red Raiders last season, but setting lofty goals, and accomplishing them with so many unknowns, is anything but a given. Still, Baylor is a team that few opponents look forward to facing, and for good reason as the once all-but-forgotten football squad from a private Baptist University in central Texas has climbed out of the doldrums and become a major force not only in the Big 12, but on the national stage as well.