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July 29, 2008
Briles has new challenges in Waco
A year ago, the week prior to the annual Red River Rivalry game, OU traveled to Boulder, Co. to "tune up" for the Longhorns. Despite being 23 point favorites, as most fans know, the Sooners struggled and were upset by the Buffs on a last second field goal.
This year the Sooners will hit the road again just prior to their showdown in Dallas, as they take on the Baylor Bears Oct. 4.
While it's not the vaunted "thin air" of Colorado, the Sooners will need to stay somewhat focused on the road against a team fresh with excitement over an offseason facelift.
The majority of that excitement stems from the top where first year head coach Art Briles looks to bring a new attitude to the green and gold.
Briles comes to Baylor after spending the last five seasons turning around his alma mater, the Houston Cougars.
A Mike Leach descendant, Briles turned around a Houston team who had won just eight games in three seasons prior to his arrival. In five years Briles turned the Cougars into one of college football's most powerful offenses, finishing with an overall record of 34-28 and only one losing season.
But that was Conference USA, now Briles is at the big boy's table in the Big 12 and winning at Baylor, in a division which returns five bowl teams from last season, should prove to be a tougher challenge.
Briles main concern this off season will be finding a man to run his west coast offense. Junior Blake Szymanski, the Bears starting quarterback a year ago returns this season, but to say his job is in jeopardy would be putting it mildly.
Shortly after Briles agreed to coach the Bears, former Miami Hurricane starting quarterback Kirby Freeman saw the writing on the wall in Coral Gables and transferred back to his home state of Texas.
Despite the two upperclassmen, Baylor might be more excited with the arrival of Robert Griffin, a Texas high school phenom, who already has a Big 12 Championship in hurdling after enrolling at Baylor in the spring.
Briles has said he has always favored the one man-quarterback system but did say that he's not opposed to a two man rotation while at Big 12 Media Days in Kansas City last week.
Possibly hinting even more towards running the two-man system, Briles added that it's a definite possibility two of his quarterbacks could be on the field every snap
Currently, insiders around the program say Freeman is the leader in the clubhouse with Griffin running a strong second.
While the quarterback position won't be set until two weeks prior to the opening game, one position the Bears do have solidified is wide receiver.
Baylor returns its three top pass catchers from a year ago with two tight ends in junior Justin Akers and sophomore Brad Taylor along with senior wide receiver Thomas White.
The Sooners shut down both tight ends a year ago but had trouble with White who tallied 117 yards and two touchdowns in week 10 in Norman.
Keep an eye out as well for junior David Gettis, another track star. He only caught 31 passes a year ago but another year in college football with his speed should give him the experience he needs to be a decent No. 2 receiver.
Without a doubt, Baylor's weakness on the offensive side of the ball will be in the backfield. Last year's leading rusher Brandon Whitaker, an Edmond Santa Fe standout, graduated leaving a hole at the running back position.
Whittaker's backups, Jacoby Jones and Jay Finley return, but both will be hampered with an offensive line that has only moderate experience but even less depth.
Defensively, the Bears are yet another team that will be completely overmatched when the Sooners have the ball. Baylor returns six starters who manned a defense allowing an average of 461 yards and 37 points a game.
Most of the Bears talent will come in the middle with junior linebacker Joe Pawelek. The third year starter was the Big 12's Newcomer of the Year as a freshman and garnered second team All-Big 12 honors in his second season.
Graduating only one senior last year, the Bears defensive line will bring a lot of experience to the table with two seniors and two juniors manning the front four for Baylor.
With three starters returning on a line that had a Big 12 worst eight sacks, don't look for that experience to overmatch the talent of OU's offensive line.
In Guy Morriss' tenure at Baylor, the Bears produced some of the worst secondaries in school history.
This season, senior Dwain Crawford and junior Jordan Lake hope to turn that Bears reputation around. Crawford, in nine starts last season, finished with three interceptions, and Lake, after a second team All Big-12 nominee as a freshman, was the team's No. 1 tackler last season with 120.
The Bears will look to add some speed to the secondary as well, moving sophomore Krys Buerck, a six game starter as a true freshman, from wide out to the corner position.
Bottom line, even when Briles resurrected the Houston program, it took time. In his first two seasons commanding the Cougars, Houston went a combined 9-14.
That start to his career at Baylor would require a couple of surprises and would be a huge step for this Bears program that hasn't had a winning season since 1995.
An even bigger upset would be beating the Sooners. OU has owned the Bears holding a current record of 17-0 against the Baptists from Waco.