December 10, 2011
Before the season, back in July or August when anything is still possible, Baylor mailed a series of trading cards to members of the media touting Robert Griffin III's statistics and assorted accomplishments over his first three seasons. A standard reminder from one of college football's most neglected outposts: Hey, our quarterback is pretty good. You know, in case you hadn't noticed.
The fact is, at that point, a lot of people probably hadn't. Which is why the notion of Griffin as a serious Heisman candidate was — and I don't think I'm being harsh here — patently ridiculous.
Not that Griffin hadn't already accomplished more at Baylor than just about any player in school history: He enrolled in early at age 17, won a Big 12 championship in the 400-meter hurdles shortly after arriving on campus, returned from a major knee injury to smash every school passing record as a junior, graduated in three years with a degree in political science, landed on the honor roll in six straight semesters and had already made plans to attend law school. He obviously had the talent, the disposition and most of the numbers to hold his own against any quarterback in the country. Except that he played quarterback for Baylor.
Over time (and over the last ten years, especially) a certain formula has developed for winning the Heisman, the politics of which should have eliminated Griffin before he ever took a snap. No player from Baylor has ever won the award, or come particularly close. The Bears weren't contenders for the BCS championship, or a BCS bowl. They still consider themselves fortunate to land in any bowl, period. They're not a traditional power. They don't play in hyped, nationally televised games. There was a good chance most voters could go all season without seeing Griffin play at all. Realistically, in August, the kind of season he had to have to overcome all that, just to have an outside shot at the Heisman Trophy, was not really conceivable.
Four months later, the fact that he delivered that season, against those odds, puts the feat into perspective. For once, the most coveted hunk of bronze doesn't belong to an overhyped player lifted by the strength of a great team. It belongs to an under-appreciated player who came out of nowhere by lifting his team to one of the best seasons in school history.
With last week's win over Texas, the Bears have won more Big 12 games with Griffin as their starting quarterback (12) since 2008 than they won in their first 12 years in the conference combined (11) from 1996-2007. That's putting it mildly. This year, they scored 45 points to beat Oklahoma for the first time ever, ruining the Sooners' BCS hopes in the process. They scored 48 to beat Texas for the second year in a row. They scored 66 to beat Texas Tech, 42 to beat Missouri and 50 to beat TCU in the opener, against a Horned Frog defense that hadn't given up 50 points or 500 yards of total offense in a game in more than five years. The Frogs didn't let it happen again this year, either.
Baylor finished the regular season in the top 10 nationally in total offense, scoring offense, passing offense and pass efficiency. It finished in the top 20 (and possibly the top 15) of every major poll with nine wins for the first time since 1986, four years before Robert Griffin III was born in Okinawa, Japan. If the Bears beat Washington in the Alamo Bowl — another drought, extending to 1992 — they'll crack 10 wins for the first time since 1980, finishing the season on a six-game winning streak.
This on a team that finished with the nation's 114th-ranked total defense. At Baylor. Which is, again, Baylor.
Individually, Griffin ranks second nationally in total offense and is on pace to record the highest single-season pass efficiency rating in Division I history. If he's played his last game in Waco — and his exploding draft stock suggests he may very well have, if he's willing to forego his final year of eligibility on campus — the odometer will reflect one of the most improbable trajectories of his generation: From a gangly, one-dimensional track star in 2008 to a polished, All-American passer in 2011 with a legitimate claim on the title of Most Outstanding Player in college football.
At the beginning of that run, the Bears hoped he could be the hero who led them out of a decade of last-place finishes and into a bowl game, at best. At the end, he's the national face of a program that barely existed to the outside world two years ago except as a punchline. They haven't made a trophy yet worth more than that.