Baylor has to beat North Carolina in Orlando on December 29, for one reason, and one reason only: Baylor. Baylor needs to salvage their reputation. But, do the Bears have what it takes?

They have the potential to finish with four losses on the year, all coming in their last five games; one of which was to a Texas team with a losing record, in Waco, where a Baylor win would have seen the Bears in the Sugar Bowl. Yes, Baylor was on their fourth string quarterback, but if the game is going to be decided by six points, then they had enough to win that game.  With Baylor coming into the pre-season ranked as a top five team, this is already far from an ideal finish, currently ranked 17th. Coming off these losses, a loss in Orlando wouldn’t necessarily be a surprising way to cap off the season. But, Baylor can’t afford to finish the season 1-3 against ranked teams if they want to be taken seriously as a football program. Two of those losses were at home, and the third was in 2OT in Ft. Worth. The thing is: All of these losses have been by 10 points or less, and all of them were to teams that were ranked worse than Baylor at the time. In fact, the win against Oklahoma State was the only game where the opposition was the higher seed, so maybe it’s an underdog mentality.

They aren’t getting blown out, and they are close enough games that they could have gone either way. They just never seem to go Baylor’s way, because the Bears don’t seem to be able to edge out wins in the tough games, against top opponents, and I don’t know if they have it in them.

They consistently come up a little short in the most important games. This goes back to Baylor’s record in bowl games in the post-RGIII era. A win in the Holiday Bowl against UCLA (both teams unranked) is their lone win. The next two years they jumped into BCS bowls, which resulted in successive losses to UCF in the Fiesta Bowl, and then Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl, last season, suggesting the Bears may not be ready for the spotlight. The Bears never even led against the Knights – which actually looks better than giving up three unanswered TD’s in the fourth quarter to lose to the Spartans. Again, both of these games were decided by 10 points or less, and again, both times Baylor was the higher seed. It’s the ability to grind out wins and see games through that appears to be haunting the Bears. It’s like they still have that small school mentality, and have to be the underdog to pull out a win.

My neighbor once told me that she could count on one hand all of the games Baylor won while she was there as a student. It seems to be an honor just to be ranked, and playing in bowl games against big teams produces this sort of “I’m just happy to be here” feeling. It’s understandable after being so bad for so long and jumping into the spotlight seemingly overnight, but those days have to be behind them if they want to move forward. This is year three as a top 25 team, and they need to start believing it. Or at least acting like it.

Now, losing to highly ranked teams is no big deal on the surface, especially by 10 points or fewer. If those had been non-conference games, they probably would have even looked more impressive to the country (and more importantly the CFP Committee) than the no-names (SMU, Lamar, Rice) that Baylor beat up on in the non-conference.

However, losing in New Year’s bowls on a national stage is a completely different ball game. The ability to win in that setting, with that pressure, is what separates the good teams from the great teams. The Bears have this reputation of being all fluff, and are only impressive against lesser, unranked opponents, which was highlighted horrifically this season. These bowl losses on the big stage, and conference losses when they absolutely need wins aren’t proving anybody wrong. I’m not asking for any drastic changes, and nobody is calling for Art Briles’ job or anything like that (maybe Phil Bennett’s though). But if Baylor loses to UNC, then the “Third string quarterback” cry won’t hold that much water because it continues the trend of losing when it matters. Baylor really needs to step it up in Florida, and prove that they can dig out wins on a big stage and overcome this small school mindset.

While the Russell Athletic Bowl isn’t exactly a New Year’s Six game, it is still a bowl game against a respected opponent. I would argue that it’s better for Baylor because it’s a nice in-between bowl for someone who went from the Holiday Bowl to the Fiesta Bowl in the span of one season. A win can act as a confidence booster, while serving as a statement that they are a competitive team who deserves to be in discussion with the nation’s best.

So, with Baylor’s reputation on the line, beating a top-10 opponent is certainly a good starting point, and being an underdog in this game might actually help get them on the right track.

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