WACO, Texas — Bryce Petty is impressed by Baylor’s new riverfront stadium, and relishes being the quarterback leading the 10th-ranked Bears back onto campus.
Bears coach Art Briles is thankful after watching 45,140-seat McLane Stadium progress over the past nearly three years — from just a vision, to a rising steel-and-concrete frame along the Brazos River and now a reality ready for Sunday night’s season opener against SMU.
There will be plenty of pomp and circumstance before the game, including Robert Griffin III scheduled to participate in the pregame dedication of a statue of the school’s only Heisman Trophy winner.
For the Big 12 champion Bears, their focus is on what is most important — trying to debut with a victory on the field.
“We need to doggone make sure we protect our new house,” Briles said.
“The stadium is a great privilege, but there’s a reason that we got it, and there’s a reason that we’re in it, and it’s to play football,” said Petty, the reigning Big 12 offensive player of the year. “It’s still 531/2 yards wide and 120 yards long. ... We want to protect that palace with everything that we’ve got, and put a team out there that’s just as great as what we’re playing in.”
The Bears will play on the Waco campus for the first time since 1935. They closed out 54 seasons at Floyd Casey Stadium, about 41/2 miles away, when they won their 10th consecutive game there last December, beating Texas to clinch their first Big 12 Conference title.
But they finished the season with a Fiesta Bowl loss to UCF, which is in the American Athletic Conference with SMU.
“Quite honestly, we’ve got a bad taste in our mouth from last January,” Briles said. “What we’re trying to do is take a wrong and make it right starting out in 2014.”
SMU feels much the same way after a 5-7 season meant they missed out on a bowl game for the first time in five years.
The Mustangs have been pretty much overlooked with all the hype about Baylor’s new $266 million stadium and their former Southwest Conference rival’s league title.
“Really, it puts the pressure on them,” SMU linebacker Stephon Sanders said. “For us, we’re just going out and playing a ballgame.”
Sanders is one of eight returning defensive starters for SMU, but its top two tacklers last season were seniors. Petty and the Bears, with plenty of returning talent, led that nation last season with 619 total yards and an NCAA-record 52.4 points a game.
“They’ve done a great job building their packages,” SMU coach June Jones said. “Art has done, from high school to Houston to Waco, he’s moved the football.”
Here’s what to watch in the first game at McLane Stadium:
EQUAL TO A HEISMAN: SMU sophomore QB Neal Burcham shared MVP honors with Jameis Winston at the ESPN Elite 11 Showcase before their senior seasons in high school. Burcham started SMU’s final two games last season as a redshirt freshman for injured Garrett Gilbert, while Winston was becoming the second consecutive freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.
TAKE ME TO THE RIVER: Many fans will arrive for games at Baylor’s new stadium by taking a 775-foot pedestrian bridge over the river. Others will get there by boat, though only a few have reserved slips in the new marina.
TIED, BUT NOT QUITE EVEN: Going into the 80th meeting in the series, it is tied 36-36-7 overall and 18-18-3 in Waco. But Baylor has won 10 consecutive games in the series. With another victory Sunday, the Bears will take the overall series lead for the first time since 1924 — when they led 3-2-4 after a 7-7 tie that season. SMU won the next four games, but now hasn’t won in the series since 1986.
CENTER OF ATTENTION: SMU junior center Taylor Lasecki has started all 25 games for the Mustangs over the last two years since he redshirted his first season on the Hilltop. While he will almost certainly extend his streak to 26 games in a row Sunday, 309-pound true freshman Evan Brown is listed as the starting right guard.