No matter what happens to Baylor this weekend versus Oklahoma State (Saturday at 8 p.m. ET, ABC) and the rest of the season, is there a better story in college football in the past few seasons than the Bears?
For those of us of a certain age, we remember when games against the Bears were an opportunity for bigger programs to wipe off their shoes and get some walk-ons into a game before moving on to the next real opponent. There would be rare stretches when the Bears would crack the top 25 and make a bowl game, and there were certainly a handful of great players to come through, but Baylor’s place in the college football world was a foregone conclusion -- a weaker cousin to the bigger brand names in Texas and the Southwest.
Then came Art Briles, Robert Griffin III and wins over TCU and Oklahoma. That led to a Heisman, three consecutive bowl games for the first time in the program’s 115-year history and (surprise) enough cash flow to finally ditch dilapidated Floyd Casey Stadium for a new $260 million facility in 2014. Now the Bears are the BCS Cinderella story of the season, sitting 9-0 with a legitimate shot to play for the Vizio BCS National Championship.
“A turnaround like Baylor’s gives a lot of other programs hope,” Duke athletic director Kevin White said earlier this year. “It says that if the right people and the right focus are put into place, then you can create the kind of energy and enthusiasm needed to create a winning football program, no matter what your history in the sport might be.”
So who might be the next Baylor? Which “sleeping giant” program is quietly stepping into the on-deck circle with a chance to suddenly shock us all with a not-too-distant BCS run and sustained success? In order to find out, I talked to some of the people who make their living in the sport for their leading candidates.
Here's a look at five programs on the verge of making a Baylor-like leap to elite status.