- Associated Press - Thursday, September 1, 2016

WACO, Texas (AP) - That countdown clock to the season opener in Baylor’s weight room seemed to ticking so slow this summer amid the bad headlines that kept hitting the program after a report that cost coach Art Briles his job.

“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t difficult,” receiver Lynx Hawthorne said.

This is finally the week the 23rd-ranked Bears have waited for, the chance to get back on the field. They open their third season in McLane Stadium on Friday night against FCS team Northwestern State.

“Just proving to ourselves that we’re not dead. We’re still alive and we’re still willing to fight,” linebacker Taylor Young said. “None of our goals have changed from the previous years. First we’ve got to win the state, then we’ve got to win the conference championship. Our overall goal is the national championship, and that has never changed even with the things that have happened.”

Briles in eight seasons transformed the Bears from perennial losers into a team that won 50 games the past five years, good enough for two Big 12 titles. But he was gone after the May 26 report from an external investigation into allegations the university mishandled complaints of sexual assault, including some against football players. The school’s president and athletic director also left their posts.

While Briles is gone, his entire coaching staff remained intact with Jim Grobe, the acting head coach who was in semi-retirement before coming to Baylor days after that report. The 64-year-old Grobe coached his last game at Wake Forest in 2013.

The opener also marks the return of Baylor quarterback Seth Russell, who was the top-rated FBS passer last year when he suffered a season-ending neck injury running the ball in the seventh game.

“It’s all excitement, guess it’s kind of giddy,” Russell said. “Counting every blessing I have.”

Russell, a senior, said he is 100 percent ready, and he will certainly need to stay healthy for the Bears since there is no proven backup quarterback after Jarrett Stidham left Baylor. The second-teamer is true freshman Zach Smith.

Some other things to know about the opener at Baylor’s riverfront campus stadium, where Northwestern State lost 70-6 two years ago:

SUSPENDED BEARS

Sophomore receiver Ishmael Zamora is suspended for Baylor’s first three games after a video surfaced showing him beating his dog with a belt this summer. The suspension wasn’t announced until this week, after the Bears had released their initial depth chart that showed Zamora as a starter. Junior safety Chance Waz, a returning starter, wasn’t on the two-deep chart. Grobe said Waz is out of the first two games because of “some discipline issues with the university.”

RECORD RUN

Shock Linwood, coming off consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons, is only 204 yards shy of breaking Baylor’s career rushing record of 3,665 yards that has been held by Walter Abercrombie for 35 years. Linwood will be running behind an offensive line with four new starters, though center Kyle Fuller joins Linwood as the most experienced starters on the team with 26.

THE GRADUATE

For the second season in a row, Northwestern State will have a graduate transfer starting at quarterback. Brooks Haack started eight games last season for Louisiana-Lafayette. Last season, the Demons’ four-quarterback battle didn’t get decided until midseason when graduate transfer Stephen Rivers (Vanderbilt, LSU) took over for the rest of the season.

NEED A NICKEL

Baylor junior nickel back Travon Blanchard, one of the defense’s most experienced players, will miss the opener after surgery to repair a damaged meniscus in his knee. Blanchard has played 26 games for the Bears, and started 13 of them in the hybrid linebacker-safety position. He could be back for the second game.

PURPLE POWER

Northwestern State has only one win against a current Big 12 team. The Demons in 2001 won 27-24 in overtime at TCU, then in Conference USA, in what was Gary Patterson’s first home game as the Horned Frogs head coach.

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Online: AP college football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org

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