In the 10 years before Art Briles took over as head coach of Baylor in 2008, the Bears' record was 29-85, an average of less than three wins per season.
Since then, Briles has taken his program to the top of the college football world. The Bears are 8-0 this season and currently sit at No. 5 in the BCS standings, their highest ranking since 1953 (No. 3). Over the last three seasons, they have won 25 games and two bowls; they boast a Heisman Trophy winner in Robert Griffin III; and five of their players have been selected in the first round, including two No. 2 overall picks: Griffin in 2012 and offensive lineman Jason Smith in 2009.
What Briles has done for Baylor is something special, injecting a wave of enthusiasm into a once-dormant program and turning it into a national-title contender. He is one of college football's top coaches, a reason Baylor awarded him a 10-year contract extension on Wednesday.
So you can bet I was intrigued two years ago, a few days before the 2012 NFL Draft, when Briles first spoke to me about a young quarterback named Bryce Petty. Originally committed to Tennessee out of Midlothian High School (Tex.), Petty had just been re-recruited by Briles after the Vols' newly hired coach, Lane Kiffin, released him from his scholarship, saying he didn't think Petty was a good fit for the team. Briles was excited about Petty, describing him as a unique talent, equally skilled as a passer and as a runner. He believed Petty had a chance to be a great player in his system.
For a coach like Briles to express such confidence in a quarterback before he had even played a game in college, it really told me how highly Briles thought of Petty. And after waiting patiently, redshirting and serving as a backup to Nick Florence last season, Petty is proving Briles right.
With Petty as its leader, the Bears' offense has averaged 61 points per game and 686 yards of total offense this season. He has passed for 2,657 yards with 21 touchdowns and only one interception. He also has eight rushing touchdowns. Petty has helped Baylor emerge as one of the big surprises of the 2013 season.
I mentioned that Briles predicted big things for Petty in his system. Baylor runs a spread offense, but it's slightly different from the ones most other teams run. Most teams like to line their wide receivers six yards from the sidelines; Baylor spreads its receivers out even more, approximately three yards from the sidelines. This not only helps isolate their speedy receivers on cornerbacks, it allows Petty more room to hurt defenses with his legs. Although he doesn't have elite speed, he has the innate ability to know when to take off and run, as he did against a pretty fast Oklahoma defense last week, when he ran for two scores.
I think Petty can thrive in any system, not just Baylor's. Beyond his ability to beat you with both his arm and his legs, what impresses me about Petty is that he's proved his willingness to compete and learn. He has had to sit on the sideline and watch the last two seasons, but he said he took that as a positive step toward becoming a better player.
That's the kind of character you like to see in a player, and it's one of the main reasons -- along with Briles' quiet confidence in him -- why I picked Petty to win the Davey O'Brien Award as the nation's top quarterback in our preseason predictions.
As a junior, Petty is technically eligible to enter the 2014 NFL Draft, but although I'm high on his skills and intangibles, I would advise him to return for his senior season. My rule of thumb has always been that college quarterbacks should get as close to 30 starts as possible. A priority for every quarterback before he goes pro is that he learns to read defenses and develop a better understanding of where and when to throw the ball. This isn't something you can really improve while sitting on the bench or studying a blackboard.
Petty has only eight starts. He's obviously off to a great start, and as he gains more experience on the field, I think he has a chance to be a pretty good NFL quarterback. His next four starts come against pretty good competition -- Texas Tech this week, followed by Oklahoma State, TCU and Texas -- giving Petty and Baylor a chance to pick up even more steam.
Three Week 12 games that interest me
Stanford at USC: After Lane Kiffin was fired following the Trojans' debacle against Arizona State in September, no one thought we would see the USC program turn around like it has. Since the firing, the Trojans have won four of five games, including two on the road. Now they face No. 4 Stanford at home. The Cardinal are coming off an upset over Oregon, and it would not surprise me to see USC, which is playing very well right now, pull off the upset here. USC 20, Stanford 17.
Michigan State at Nebraska: In the last two weeks, we have seen Michigan State and Nebraska's defense hold Michigan to negative rushing yardage. Don't look for a whole lot of scoring in this one. I give the Huskers a slight edge in the running game, and that'll be the difference. I like Nebraska to win, 17-14.
Oklahoma State at Texas: Both teams need to win to stay in the BCS chase. Texas has won six straight despite several injuries and a lot of distractions from the Texas fans who thought Mack Brown should be fired. Brown has done an excellent job keeping this team together amid all of the noise, and he's done it without the Longhorns' starting QB, David Ash. The home crowd should help Texas come out on top in a close one. Texas 38, Oklahoma State 35.
Duke over Miami (Fla.): I've been on Duke ever since September, when I picked the Blue Devils to upset Pittsburgh; they didn't, thanks to a six-touchdown performance by Panthers QB Tom Savage. Miami is coming off a tough loss last week vs. Virginia Tech, and one of their top offensive weapons, RB Duke Johnson, is out with an injury.