For Baylor, the Sugar Bowl victory was meant to show how far this program has come in a year.

For Baylor, it wasn’t about scoring a point or even an important game.

The Allstate Sugar Bowl was intended to illustrate how far the program and all of its participants had traveled in one season.

The Bears took full advantage of the showcase, beating Mississippi 21-7 Saturday at New Orleans on a mix of old-fashioned power and one of the most dominant defensive performances in Sugar Bowl history.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s a point to prove. I would say it’s more of an identity to show, ”said Baylor coach Dave Aranda. “Just to get on stage and take the lights and the crowd and all that and be us all the way, man. Like the ‘us’ we’ve been working on since January.

With the win, Baylor (12-2) set a single-season winning record. The Bears won the New Years Bowl for the first time since the Sugar Bowl on January 1, 1957 against Tennessee. The 10-win turnaround from a record 2-7 in 2020 equaled the biggest turnaround of the AP Poll era, a mark Michigan also achieved this year.

“So a bunch of never-made at Baylor,” Aranda said. “It all comes down to personal choices, doing the little things right, and adhering to a standard about feelings. And just very proud. And it’s just something when you see it, you want other people to see it.

“I am grateful that we had this opportunity and we took advantage of it. “

Do you like smashing football? Running back Abram Smith ran for 172 yards on 25 carries, setting Baylor’s single-season record with 1,601 yards. Terrel Bernard put on one of the most complete games of any Baylor linebacker with 17 tackles and two of Baylor’s record 10 sacks.

Quarterback Gerry Bohanon highlighted the team culture.

“It starts with Coach Aranda and his team,” said Bohanon. “They are united. They have a standard for us ”,

Yes, Mississippi lost quarterback Matt Corral to a right leg injury late in the first quarter, but Baylor’s defense was already setting the tone. Baylor’s defense scored a touchdown on Al Walcott’s 96-yard intercept return and prepared another.

An emotional Corral, set to be a first-round pick this spring, then sidelined on crutches with freshman liner Luke Altmyer.

“You keep putting one foot in front of the other, doing what you’re supposed to do, day in and day out,” Bernard said. “Finally, your time will come. And it’s just crazy to see the growth and everything that has happened to get to this point.

Baylor seniors – especially those on campus for five years or more – had been through an emotional roller coaster of remarkable highs and unfathomable lows.

In the wake of the Art Briles scandal, Baylor went 1-11 in 2017 in Matt Rhule’s first season. Two years later, the Bears reached the Sugar Bowl, losing to Georgia and Rhule left for the NFL Panthers, upsetting Baylor fans.

Sporting director Mack Rhoades has hired Aranda, the defensive coordinator of LSU’s national champions. Calm, cerebral, and introspective, Aranda’s first season never really started thanks to Covid and a spray offense.

During the offseason, Aranda reshuffled the coaching staff, bringing in offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes who had done wonders at BYU.

Things clicked early and continued with the Big 12 title win over Oklahoma State and then the Sugar Bowl.

Now he is considering a significant contract extension which should be announced at any time. Sustainment can be a challenge with 14 senior starters leaving, including Smith, Bernard, Big 12 defensive player of the year Jalen Pitre and four offensive linemen.

But the foundations are laid.

“I think what’s great about this story is that it has come full circle,” ESPN analyst Greg McElory said on the show on Saturday night. “Building confidence the way Dave Aranda was able to build confidence in a short time with a group of guys who didn’t sign up to play for him. …

“You thought there was insane staff turnover. Instead, Dave Aranda has earned the trust of all his players and is watching the result.

Baylor running back Abram Smith (7) kicks the ball as quarterback Blake Shapen (12) watches against Oklahoma State in the first half of an NCAA college football game for the Big 12 Championship Conference in Arlington, Texas on Saturday, December 4.  2021. (AP Photo / Tim Heitman)

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Rachel J. Bradford