The season before Art Briles's arrival was more of the same for Baylor. In 2007, the fifth year under Guy Morriss, Baylor went 3-9 — good for its customary last-place finish in the Big 12 South. Since the first football game of Big 12 play, in 1996, the Bears had finished sixth on their side of the conference 11 times. The last time they'd been to a bowl, the Big 12 conference didn't exist. The only time of the year Baylor was relevant in college football was when the other schools in the conference wanted to schedule their homecoming games.
Six years later, Briles has turned Baylor football into the state of Texas's answer to the Oregon Ducks: fast players, fast tempo, and even faster scoring, all infused with a long drawl and a gunslinger's mind-set. Over the past three seasons, Baylor — a 15,000-student private school in Waco — has gone 24-8 behind some of the best offenses in football, and it has done it with a revolving cast of players. Led by Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, Baylor won 10 games in 2011 and finished second in the nation in total offense. In 2012, after losing Griffin to the NFL, as well as their leading receiver and rusher, the Bears finished second nationally in total offense, upset the no. 2 team in the country, and crushed UCLA 49-26 in the Holiday Bowl. Before this season, Baylor again lost its quarterback and leading receiver to graduation. So, of course, Baylor is undefeated and has college football's best offense by every conceivable metric, having scored 70 or more points four times (and 69 in another game). All of this has happened at a program that, before the 2010 season, hadn't gone to a bowl game in 15 years.
Briles has made believers out of players and fans conditioned by years of disappointment by having the audacity to expect success at a place that has never really known it. If this weren't happening at Baylor, Briles's approach would be something like arrogance: We are going to score, and we are going to win. "We do not try to go to the body to set up the knockout shot," Briles said at a recent coaching clinic. "We try to score on every snap."
That Baylor, an afterthought for 30 years, can approach football like this speaks to what Briles has built in his short time there. There have been many contributors to Baylor's recent success, not least of all Griffin — but the architect of the turnaround is the Bears' head coach, just as he's been at so many stops before. Briles has made a career of building winners by lighting up scoreboards, and Baylor is his best job yet.
Ten different starting quarterbacks in the NFL this season played high school football in Texas. Some of this may just be a lucky run, but it's also not a surprise. After decades of grind-it-out power football, the Texas high school game has gone the opposite direction — fully embracing the trend of wide-open, up-tempo spread offenses. In Texas, most high school quarterbacks practice passing year-round: Fall practice is buttressed by spring practice, and whatever offseason remains is spent visiting innumerable passing camps or playing in seven-on-seven passing leagues. When the fall games do begin, they resemble those pass-only workouts more than they ever have.
Arguably, no coach did more to lead the way for these wide-open attacks than Briles, first as head coach at Hamlin High School and later at Stephenville. Briles's teams ran the spread offense back in the 1980s and 1990s, long before it was popular in college or the NFL. Most importantly, they won with that offense. Before Briles's arrival in 1988, Stephenville's football team had not made the Texas state playoffs since 1952. Briles won four state championships in a seven-year span, and his 1998 championship squad set a national record for total offense in a single season, with a staggering 8,664 yards.1
Briles played college football at the University of Houston for the legendary Bill Yeoman, the creator of the vaunted "Houston Veer" triple option. As a young coach, Briles used Yeoman's scheme, but he quickly decided a change was needed to beat the more talented teams in Texas.
"What I looked for was an edge, something different. So in '85 we went to the one-back, four wides and went 14-1," Briles told SBNation this summer. "At Stephenville, we definitely had to do something that gave ourselves a chance to get the opportunity to win football games. We weren't just gonna line up and beat people. We had to be a little unconventional, which we were."
Briles's success as a high school coach got him his first college coaching job, as Mike Leach's running backs coach at Texas Tech in 2000. He stayed in Lubbock for three seasons before getting an offer to take over as head coach of a moribund University of Houston program in 2003. It was not a glamour job. According to Briles, he was the lowest-paid coach in Division I football. Two years before Briles's arrival, the Cougars had gone 0-11 in 2001. Yet Houston went to a bowl game in four of Briles's five seasons, which included a 10-win campaign in 2006.2
At Stephenville and Houston, Briles earned a reputation as a motivator and as a coach for whom players loved to play. His ability to articulate a vision for his program, even in the darkest of times, is why he has been able to surround himself with good players, good coaches, and good people at every stop.
There's no question, though, that it's Briles's offense — currently averaging more than 64 points and 713 yards per game — that is the engine of Baylor's success and the source for all the optimism surrounding his program. When Baylor's offense is rolling — when the aggressive plays, speedy weapons, and up-tempo pace work in unison — the offense is less about executing football plays and more about waging psychological warfare. Two weeks removed from Baylor's 73-point, 872-yard thrashing of West Virginia, WVU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson described the loss as "unlike anything I've ever been associated with in my entire life. It was just catastrophic in a lot of ways to our psyche." When Baylor scores 35 in a quarter, 50 in a half, or 70 in a game, it's hard for the opposing team to recover mentally — not just in that game, but for the rest of their season. The fact that it's Baylor — yesterday's footstool — is not lost on anyone, either.
Ask any offensive-minded football coach how he plans to attack a defense and at some point — maybe after talking about establishing the run, or about getting the ball to his best players — he'll say that his offense is designed to stretch the defense horizontally and vertically. The idea of using the entire field has long been part of basic football theory, but most offenses don't follow through on that promise. They may toss in the occasional downfield throw, or a sweep or short pass to the flat, before receding back into something pedestrian and predictable. Many of the now-ubiquitous "spread" offenses are better defined by their uniformity than their uniqueness, as every team tries to sprinkle some Oregon or Nevada pistol into their game plans; nowadays it seems everyone is trying to be "different" in the exact same ways.
Then there's Baylor. Superficially, Baylor is yet another shotgun spread that pushes the tempo and rarely huddles. But when you watch the Bears, it's evident that this is an offense unlike the others. While more and more college and NFL teams are adopting the same up-tempo spread philosophy Briles used at Stephenville, Baylor has stayed one step ahead by taking these ideas — from formations to play-calling aggressiveness to pace — to their extremes.
The first thing to notice when watching Baylor is the splits of the wide receivers. While most teams put their wide receivers on the numbers, the Bears line theirs up well outside, sometimes directly on the sideline. By doing this, they force defenses to account for the entire width of the field.
The fascinating advantage of Baylor's splits is the effect they have on pass coverage. Defenses now use lots of complex, hybrid pass coverages, but most still reduce to a basic distinction: Is it man-to-man or zone? By taking such wide splits, Baylor puts every pass defender on an island, transforming most zone defenses into a type of de facto one-on-one man coverage.
Bryce Petty's 93-yard touchdown pass to Tevin Reese against Kansas State is a perfect example. The Bears lined up in a five-receiver set, while Kansas State employed a form of quarters, or "Cover Four" zone coverage. In quarters, the cornerbacks and safeties are supposed to work in tandem to take away the popular pass route combinations run by most teams; very often it results in an offense's best receiver being double-teamed. By alignment, however, it's clear that Kansas State won't be double-teaming any of Baylor's receivers.
Instead, Kansas State's safeties and nickel defensive backs are spread so wide and are in so much space that they are forced to play Baylor's receivers one-on-one. Briles and his staff are experts not only at forcing this type of coverage, but also at getting a slower defensive back, often a safety, against one of the team's blindingly fast receivers. Here, the strong safety is matched up against the fleet-footed Reese and never really stands a chance. This was a Baylor touchdown before the ball was ever snapped.
Even with that advantage, the biggest beneficiary of the receivers' splits is the running game, particularly Lache Seastrunk, the best big-play runner in college football. If a linebacker or nickel defensive back tries to cheat away from a receiver to stop the run, BU quarterback Bryce Petty simply flips the ball to one of his many speedy receivers on an outside screen or even a quick seam route, an option built into most of Baylor's run plays. According to Briles, Baylor has "a lot of different reads off of every one of our plays for our quarterback." Once those defenders have been taken out of the equation, Baylor has a numbers advantage to run the ball, something it is more than happy to do.
Unlike Oregon, Baylor's offense is pass-first, but it has nevertheless averaged more than 230 yards rushing per game over each of the past three seasons, including 342 yards against then–no. 2 Kansas State last fall. Late in that game, the Wildcats put two safeties deep to protect their defensive backs from bad one-on-one matchups. Briles and his staff responded by calling an inside power run with the backside tackle pulling to lead for Seastrunk, who squirted through the line and blazed past the defense for an 80-yard touchdown run.
Briles's experience with Yeoman's veer has helped Baylor's run game. While most spread-offense coaches are content to run basic zone plays, Briles and his staff mix in a variety of schemes. And if you give Baylor the run, it will certainly take it. Last year, the Bears finished fourth in the country in passing yards, but in their win over UCLA, they threw only 13 passes versus 67 runs.
Baylor's ability to run sets up the most lethal part of its offense: its play-action passing game. Baylor is the best play-action spread offense I've ever seen, and more than any other team Baylor has exploded the myth that a team must put its quarterback under center to have an effective play-action passing game. Briles and his staff use a full assortment of play-action tactics to devastating effect: extended fakes, pulling guards, and tight ends and blocking backs who either stay in to block or slip out undetected.
In the defining game of Robert Griffin III's Heisman Trophy season — and maybe the defining game in Baylor history — the Bears upset no. 5 Oklahoma 45-38 as Griffin hit Terrance Williams with a 34-yard touchdown pass with just seconds left on the clock. Throughout the game, Griffin repeatedly attacked downfield, racking up 479 passing yards and four touchdowns on just 34 attempts.
Their best play-action concept with Griffin at the helm was to fake one of their go-to run plays, the inverted veer, while an inside receiver faked running a short slant inside before bursting downfield. With Griffin's consistently excellent selling of the fake and Baylor also pulling a guard in that direction to further draw the defense's attention, it's a play that worked often.
The beauty of Baylor's offense is that it's almost all driven by structure and repetition rather than complexity. When Baylor runs a play-action pass, it typically uses just one of three routes for its outside receivers: a "go" or vertical route, a post, or a comeback. That's it. It works because Baylor calls play-action when the safeties can't help — or be helped — and it's almost impossible to simultaneously defend the threat of all three of those routes at the same time. For truly great offenses, it's never the cleverness of the plays or concepts individually. It's how the entire offense fits together.
Finally, Baylor takes those perfectly aligned pieces and supercharges them with a tempo most teams can't match. I'm not sure which team in college football operates fastest, but I'm sure no one is faster than Baylor. The speed forces Baylor's opponents to show their hands: Defenses can't shift and disguise if the ball might be snapped at any moment. In Baylor's case, the up-tempo no-huddle is not just a tactic, it's central to its very identity.
"The biggest thing in the success of our offense is the tempo at which we played," explained Briles at a recent clinic. "I want to be the fastest team in America as far as the number of times we snap the ball. People do not pay money to come to a game and watch a slowdown offense. If they go to the restroom, I want them to come back and say, 'What happened while I was gone?' They will miss something if they leave the game. When we have the ball, we will do something with it. You only get 12 possessions a game, and we want to get our money's worth."3
Baylor's offense (and its apparently improved defense) has made the Bears national title contenders, but with success comes attention, and speculation that Briles could be lured to a high-profile head coaching job elsewhere has begun. I'm not so sure. Briles is Texas through and through, and he's had great success recruiting Texas high school players who grew up playing in versions of the offense he started popularizing more than 15 years ago. Combine this with his healthy salary at Baylor — $2.2 million — and the new stadium set to open next fall, and it's understandable if the 57-year-old Briles prefers to enjoy what he's helped build.
There is one job, however, that he could be forgiven for considering: head coach of the University of Texas. That job has yet to officially become open, though odds seem to be good that this is Mack Brown's last season as the Longhorns' head coach. Such speculation is premature, but it nevertheless adds an extra bit of intrigue for when the Longhorns travel to Waco in early December for both teams' regular-season finale. That game could decide the Big 12 title and, possibly, whether an undefeated Baylor deserves a spot in the national championship game — a scenario that would have been beyond imagining even a few years ago.
These days, though, Baylor has earned attention not only in Texas but throughout the country. This past summer, while speaking to a gathering of Texas high school coaches, Mack Brown was asked how to stop Baylor. Mack shrugged before saying, "I mean, nobody stops Baylor."