- Associated Press - Thursday, October 28, 2010

WACO, TEXAS (AP) - They have heard the derisive chants of “Worse than Bay-lor!”

They know school officials fought hard to keep Baylor in the Big 12 last summer when it looked like they would get left behind in the realignment shuffle.

Now Bears football players can point to the top of the Big 12 South standings, where they sit alone in first place. Quarterback Robert Griffin III and a core group of teammates told themselves three years ago their mission was to start “a Big 12 takeover.”

They might just pull it off.

“We’ve been down for a long time here at Baylor,” senior safety Byron Landor said. “A lot of teams don’t expect us to come out and play to win.”

Ranked for the first time since 1993, No. 25 Baylor (6-2, 3-1 Big 12) rolls into Austin on Saturday night to face struggling _ and unranked _ Texas (4-3, 2-2), which has lost two in a row at home but is nonetheless favored by 7 1/2 points.

How remarkable is Baylor’s rise? Landor said that during his anatomy class after the Bears beat Kansas State last week, the professor asked the football players in the room to stand up for applause.

Beat the Longhorns and the Bears aren’t just talking about competing in the Big 12, unheard of since the day the league was founded.

They’ll be in position to maybe even win it.

To understand just how far Baylor has come, consider this: the Bears have suffered the heartburn of 14 consecutive losing seasons, from 1996-2009, full of blowouts and last-second losses.

In 1999, the first year of the Kevin Steele era, the Bears tried to punch in a last-second touchdown to get a more emphatic win over UNLV and set the tone for an emerging program. But a fumble into the end zone led to a 100-yard touchdown return and a Baylor loss.

During one stretch, the Bears lost 30 consecutive Big 12 games. That’s when the chant of “Worse than Bay-lor!” became one of the most damning insults Big 12 fans could hurl at each other.

But after last week’s 47-42 win over Kansas State, Baylor is bowl eligible for the first time since 1994.

“You can dodge it if you want to, or act like it doesn’t exist,” Baylor coach Art Briles said, “but we buried some ghosts (Saturday) night.”

The entire campus is excited about the postseason and it’s not yet Halloween.

“Everybody’s talking about it. I REALLY want to go to a bowl game,” senior Kirsten Dahl said outside the Baylor Student Life Center this week. “This is the first time they’ve done it and it’s my last year.”

Dahl, who is from Dallas, has suffered the teasing of friends at Texas and other Big 12 schools about Baylor’s ineptitude on the field in the past.

“They all said we had to pay to stay in the Big 12,” Dahl said. “I’m making fun of them now.”

Baylor has had four coaches since joining the Big 12 in 1996. It wasn’t until Briles was hired away from Houston and brought with him the hotshot recruit Griffin that Bears fans had any real hope of turning things around. Although Griffin grew up just 70 miles from Waco in Copperas Cove, he wasn’t recruited by former Baylor coach Guy Morriss.

“I came over (with Briles) with an open mind. I was shocked at how badly the teams had been playing over the years,” Griffin said.

Griffin gave Baylor signs of life when he took over the starting job early in his freshman season and led Baylor to four wins. A knee injury knocked him out for most of 2009. Sitting out while Baylor lost seven of its last eight games after a 3-1 start was “demoralizing,” Griffin said.

It’s in the past now. This year, Griffin has passed for 2,373 yards with 18 touchdowns and has rushed for 384 yards and six TDs. He ranks third nationally in total offense.

Texas coach Mack Brown said this week Griffin should be among the top candidates for the Heisman Trophy.

Griffin said he’s proud of being on the team that got Baylor bowl eligible again.

“We’ve etched our name in stone because of the drought that we’ve had,” Griffin said. “People will remember the team that overcame everything.”

Yet Baylor is still an underdog Saturday night in Austin.

Even though Texas is having a down year, the newcomers don’t get the same respect as a program that has won at least 10 games nine consecutive seasons, won a national title in 2005 and played for another last season.

Yet Texas has lost consecutive home games for the first time since 1997. Last week’s 28-21 loss to Iowa State came just a week after Texas played its best game of the season in a 20-13 road win at Nebraska. Iowa State had never beaten Texas.

“Texas is coming off an embarrassing game for them, they’ll be mad,” Griffin said.

Baylor, however, is playing to wipe out bad memories that date back a lot longer than a week.

“I think we go out every week playing with a chip on our shoulder,” Griffin said. “We’ve been disrespected a lot.”

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