A surprising 9-0, Baylor’s rise to a showdown with Oklahoma was three years in the making

Matt Rhule knows the question is coming. It rests beneath the surface, in any exploration of how Baylor arrived at this moment: astonishingly unbeaten with an unexpected showdown looming with Oklahoma.

The Bears are 9-0, sure. But they have won five of their last seven games by one possession and three games on the very last play. They’re ranked No. 13 by the College Football Playoff’s selection committee, behind a pair of two-loss teams. Oh, and also behind one-loss Oklahoma, which sits at No. 10. So here it is:

What should we make of the Bears?

“We’re just gutting out wins,” Rhule says. “People will say, ‘How are they doing it,’ or ‘They’re lucky.’ No. They’re just tough. They might not be Alabama – but we’re tough.”

More important is what Rhule has made of the Bears. If the success seems sudden, understand the roots go back almost three years to December 2016. Art Briles had been fired the previous spring amid a wide-ranging sexual assault scandal at the school that was still unfolding. The roster was emptying and recruits generally weren’t interested, mostly because no one was sure what would emerge from the program’s rubble.

Brewer had a stellar career at Lake Travis High School, a football powerhouse outside Austin. He was committed to SMU. But Baylor had only one returning scholarship quarterback, and Rhule kept hearing about Brewer, so he called and offered a scholarship.

The quarterback and his parents were skeptical. But he’d grown up watching the Big 12. He wanted to play Power Five football (his father, uncle and grandfather played at Texas; his older brother Michael played at Texas Tech and Virginia Tech).

“I felt I owed it to myself to give myself a shot at playing at the highest level I could,” Brewer says. “I thought I was good enough to belong in the Big 12.”

He became Baylor’s starter midway through his freshman season and has developed into a star. Rhule calls it “a story of pure and total blind faith,” both in Rhule and the program but also of Brewer in himself. And Brewer acknowledges:

“The whole thing was pretty unusual. But that’s just my experience with recruiting in a nutshell: uncertainty and kind of just taking a chance. It worked out.”

This did, too. Among Rhule’s first agenda items was a drive to Round Rock to visit Lynch, a highly touted recruit who’d been committed to Southern California. Lynch and his family had “a ton of questions about what was gonna happen with the program,” Rhule says – which put him in company with so many other recruits and their parents during those early days.

Lynch’s questions continued for weeks, and he was routinely texting and calling Rhule. But he chose Baylor, and quickly became a star, and the linchpin of what has developed into a solid defense.

“In the end, he trusted us and came,” Rhule says.

Rhule arrived, choosing Baylor over Oregon, and two important pieces followed shortly thereafter. The stories of how standout quarterback Charlie Brewer and star defensive tackle James Lynch found their way to Waco, where they’ve become catalysts in the Bears’ renaissance, help to understand how and why the Bears are hosting the biggest game of the weekend in college football.

Others did, too. And while Rhule knows many shied away from Baylor because of the uncertainty surrounding the program, he also believes some of the challenges then created more honest recruiting conversations.

“We weren’t talking about helmet colors,” Rhule says. “I wasn’t talking with James Lynch about our Nike deal. We were talking about scandals and sanctions. … The kids who signed with us are the kind who come for the right reasons and they stay with us.”

As important, the players Rhule inherited largely bought in to the change he brought, too. And they stayed with it even while going 1-11 in 2017 and 7-6 last season.

Inside Baylor’s football offices, dozens of sheets of paper are taped to the walls: “1-0.” This week, the message rests below Oklahoma’s familiar interlocking OU logo. It’s not unique, of course, but nearly universal in college football: Every game is a one-game season, what you did last week doesn’t matter, what happens next week won’t matter if you don’t win this week, and so on. But it might resonate more in Waco.

After going 1-0 last week at TCU – in three overtimes, and only after a 51-yard field goal in the final seconds of regulation – the Bears are on an 11-0 run going back to last season. To Rhule, it’s proof of a team that has developed “competitive stamina,” the ability to play well every week.

“There’s gonna be a time where you lose because someone’s better or the ball bounces the wrong way or something,” he says. “But our ability to show up every week is something that, from when we first got here, is remarkable. We started developing that in 2017, when you were gonna lose every week but you still had to show up.

“I love to go back and look at those scores sometimes, because for a team that lost to UTSA (Texas-San Antonio) and Liberty, we took Oklahoma to the wire. We took West Virginia to the last play of the game. … We learned that year how to just keep coming back and compete.”

And last year, even as they were clearly improved, the Bears never won consecutive Big 12 games. But that, Rhule says, helped forge resiliency.

So with Oklahoma coming to town (and ESPN’s “College Gameday,” too), what is Baylor? The answer goes deeper than nine games. Or the 10th.

“This isn’t about one game,” Rhule says. “It’s about the last three years of work – but also the next three years of work. … I keep telling our young guys: Learn the lessons now. Where can you be in three years? Where can we take the program if you guys will grind through success the way the older guys grinded through adversity?”