- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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In case you had forgotten the sheer oddity of the 2011 football season, take a moment to recall that Baylor finished in the top 15, while Oklahoma and Ohio State did not. A Baylor quarterback won the Heisman Trophy. A Baylor quarterback became the second player selected in the NFL draft.
Don't remember him? Turn on your television and wait five minutes for a Subway ad.
Baylor coach Art Briles brought Robert Griffin III with him to Waco four years ago. Griffin is wearing a Washington Redskins uniform now. Briles is still at Baylor. It must be weird for Briles to be there without RG3. Briles laughed through the phone and said, "That may be the understatement of the day."
What Griffin and his teammates -- four other offensive starters went in the draft last April -- achieved last season is as concrete as the $250 million stadium that the university is building on the banks of the Brazos. That stadium is a testament to the excitement that the Bears have generated.
With all due respect to the other upstarts of last year -- take a bow, Stanford and Oklahoma State; welcome back to the big time, Arkansas and Kansas State -- Baylor had a longer lease in the cellar than any of them.
Those four schools begin this season in the Top 25. Baylor does not, even as 16 starters return to a team that finished 10-3 last season, including a six-game winning streak to close the year. Briles and everyone else who believes in the green and gold are convinced that the success of 2011 is more than ephemeral.
"A lot of times in the football world, you live on faith and hope and belief," Briles said. "What a lot of people want to see are results, production and reality. What we've got now is results, production and reality."
A lot of times in the football world, you live on faith and hope and belief. What a lot of people want to see are results, production and reality. What we've got now is results, production and reality.
-- Baylor head coach Art Briles
Briles sees it in the recruits his staff befriends on Facebook. Coveted in-state signees such as inside receiver Corey Coleman of Richardson and defensive lineman Javonte Magee of San Antonio already appear as if they will earn playing time as freshmen this fall.
"Those are just two examples out of about eight, the level of athletes that can get on the field for us this year just because of how dynamic they are," Briles said. "Whereas, four or five years ago, freshmen might have been getting on the field because of our [lack of] depth, our talent level. That's not the case anymore. To get on the field now, you've got to have pretty special qualities."
The spread offense that last year generated 45 points per game -- 67 against Washington in the Valero Alamo Bowl -- attracts recruits. Senior quarterback Nick Florence, who started seven games in 2009 when Griffin tore an ACL, is expected to keep the offense humming.
At Stanford, which is also replacing a once-in-a-generation quarterback, the offense well may shift its emphasis toward tailback Stepfan Taylor, who has rushed for nearly 2,500 yards the past two seasons while lining up in the shadow of Andrew Luck. Oklahoma State is starting over with a true freshman, Wes Lunt, running its offense. Arkansas has its best players back but lost its offensive mastermind of a head coach, Bobby Petrino.
Compared to those teams, Baylor is in good shape. Briles plugs in a senior with starting experience at quarterback. Florence isn't expected to produce yards and points the way that RG3 did. But who could? That is the power of Griffin's legacy on the field. His legacy off the field will live on a long time, too, as far as Briles is concerned.
"I'm just grateful for Robert, as is the university, for all he did for the university, and our national image, and how he portrayed himself," Briles said. "That's the critical factor. When Mama and Daddy across America look at Baylor, they envision Robert Griffin III. It's a good product out there for our university."
Briles believed he could succeed in Waco where the previous four coaches could not. He left the University of Houston and Conference USA for the security of the Big 12 Conference, even if Baylor hadn't had a winning season since 1995.
"First of all, I knew I was looking at a window of 15 to 20 more years of coaching," said Briles, 56. "And within that window, I wanted to have the opportunity to win a national championship. I just felt like we had a better opportunity because of conference at that time to do it here."
National championship? Last season's success pulled Briles' Baylor record (25-25) back to square one. But Briles long ago turned aside the chance to live a pessimist's life. In Oct. 1976, during his junior year as a wide receiver at Houston, his parents and aunt died in an automobile accident en route to see the Cougars play at SMU.
"I've always, whether it was right or wrong, believed that everything was going to be OK and work out," Briles said. " I've kind of been put to where I had two [legs] to stand on and they were mine, since early in life. I've never been afraid or daunted by challenges, that other people may see as a challenge but I see as an opportunity."
That may be the ideal frame for the 2012 season. Baylor is picked to return to the bottom half of the Big 12. The Bears not only open their conference schedule on Sept. 29 at No. 11 West Virginia but do so as the Mountaineers' Homecoming fodder. As if West Virginia won't be excited enough for its Big 12 debut.
Griffin is gone. A new stadium won't arrive for two years. But Briles and Baylor believe a new era is here to stay.
Robert Griffin III is gone. But the new era he helped usher in at Baylor is here to stay -- or so the Bears hope.