WACO, Texas -- Over the middle, around the edge and straight through the SMU secondary, Baylor looked just fine without Robert Griffin III behind center on Sunday night.
Former understudy, part-time fill-in and new starting quarterback Nick Florence looked sharp to pick up win No. 1 on the season against former Southwest Conference foe SMU, tossing a career-high four touchdowns on the way to a 59-24 win. Although the Bears are not expected to hit the 10-win mark they did a year ago, they served notice in the season opener that they won't be reverting back to the bottom-dwelling Baylor of old anytime soon and extended the second-longest win streak in the country to seven.
"We had to come out and see what we were because just like everybody else, we weren't sure," coach Art Briles said. "We felt like we knew that we had an eager, anxious football team that wanted to prove themselves and I think they showed that tonight. I'm extremely proud of them."
The only issue, perhaps a good one if you're Briles, is that he hardly got to see Florence in action. Starting the 4th quarter, the offense had the ball fewer than 16 minutes but the team had managed to put 45 points on the board. All but one scoring drive with the starters took under two minutes. It's difficult -- if not impossible -- to match what RG3 did last season in terms of efficiency but Florence, 21-for-30, 341 yards through the air against the Mustangs, looked like he picked up a thing or two holding the clipboard while the second pick in the NFL Draft did his thing last year.
Florence doesn't have the arm like his predecessor but he hung in the pocket and was able to deliver several nice throws to his speedy wideouts once they burned the SMU secondary. Combine his solid release with sneaky quick running back Jarred Salubi and the offense won't be lacking for points against some suspect Big 12 defenses.
"Nick is Nick. He's an intelligent, passionate, driven player that places himself second," Briles said. "Those are all pretty good qualities when you're at that position. He's going to continue to just keep improving. Honestly, for him percentage-wise, it was a little low."
"I think it was a good first start but I want to get better," said Florence. "For me, I couldn't ask for a better situation to step into. Guys are playing with a lot of confidence and we have a lot of playmakers. We have bigger goals but we have to keep getting better."
The senior signal-caller is no stranger to trotting out onto the field in place of the departed Heisman Trophy winner, having played in two games last year and starting seven of them as a true freshman when Griffin went down with a season-ending injury in 2009. With a spring practice and months of preparation leading up to SMU though, there was a little extra pep in Florence's step knowing he was at last the guy in the program.
"That freshman year, I was nervous more than anything," he said. "Tonight, and leading up to this, I was just excited. I just want an opportunity to play ball and play this game. Coming down that tunnel, after march of the Bears, it just kind of hit me that my opportunity is finally here."
Briles noted that this wasn't the first time Florence has been pushed into a major role for the team and there wasn't too much of a difference in how he carried himself prior to the game. During Baylor's breakout season in 2011, nobody was a bigger fan of RG3 than Florence -- and not just because he hoped for playing time in a blowout. The program reaped the benefits of having a star at quarterback the past few seasons but, going forward, it appears they'll benefit from having a much more of a team-oriented feel.
That's not a knock on RG3, a true team guy, but it's clear that the press about the Bears will no longer be just about the Heisman winner but more of a rotation of names. If winning is to be a common thing in Waco going forward, more than one guy has to carry a team. Given how much Florence talked about the defense in lieu of himself, it appears they have the right mix in 2012.
Speaking of the defense, Baylor ranked 116th in the country last season and was last seen making Washington's Keith Price look like a Heisman candidate in the Alamo Bowl. They looked improved with linebacker Bryce Hager and multipurpose threat Ahmad Dixon combining on over 20 tackles. They gave up yardage but managed to tighten up when it mattered most, limiting SMU to short gains most of the evening while taking a controversial fumble recovery back for a touchdown.
If Baylor is going to be competitive in a league that has added offenses like West Virginia and TCU, the defense will have to step up. They got off to a good start but we'll see if it's shootout time once they face an experienced offense.
"I think we're a tough football team," added Briles. "We're a team that knows how to win, that believes they're going to win and that can certainly play in spurts with some pretty dynamic qualities on both sides of the ball."
On the other sideline, a new era at SMU got off to a rocky start with quarterback Garrett Gilbert looking disjointed throwing the ball despite having time in the pocket. The former Texas starter took a large course load in the spring in order to graduate and play for June Jones and it certainly looked like he hadn't quite grasped the minutia of the run-and-shoot quite yet after tossing 16 incompletions in the first half alone.
For a few on the sidelines, perhaps it would have been better had the Methodists and Baptists not played on Sunday.
But on Saturday the question was how Baylor would move on without RG3. Despite a few empty seats in the corners of Floyd Casey Stadium, the answer appeared to be just fine.