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Baylor has momentum, but can the Ukwuachu controversy stall it?

 Baylor has momentum, but can the Ukwuachu controversy stall it?
Baylor Coach Art Briles responds to questions during a news conference after the College Football Playoffon Dec. 7. (Rod Aydelotte / Associated Press)

This was always going to be a statement season for Baylor, a rising football power that finished fifth last year in the College Football Playoff standings, one spot shy of earning a spot in a national semifinal.

These probably weren't the kinds of statements the program had in mind:

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Sam Ukwuachu, a defensive end, was recently convicted of sexual assault against a former Baylor soccer player. Ukwuachu received a 180-day jail sentence and 10 years of probation.

Baylor President and Chancellor Ken Starr called for a comprehensive internal inquiry into the circumstances associated with the case.

Meantime, Baylor Coach Art Briles released a statement saying former Boise State coach Chris Petersen had not informed him of allegations of Ukwuachu's violent past before Baylor accepted the star player as a transfer.

"I talked to Chris Petersen personally," Briles said. "No mention of anything beyond Sam being depressed and needing to come home."

That was news to Petersen, now Washington's head coach, who rebutted Briles' statement with one of his own.

"…I thoroughly apprised Coach Briles of the circumstances surrounding Sam's disciplinary record and dismissal," Petersen wrote.

Briles then clarified his original statement.

"…In our discussion, he did not disclose that there had been violence toward women, but he did tell me of a rocky relationship with his girlfriend which contributed to his depression. The only disciplinary action I was aware of were team-related issues, insubordination of coaches and missing practice."

The he said-he said sparring between Petersen and Briles may never be satisfactorily resolved, but the stain on Briles and Baylor is likely to last.

It's interesting that a player who never played a down for Baylor might stall a promising regime.

Some observers have concluded that Baylor succumbed to the hubris and arrogance that tends to intoxicate football programs craving big-time prizes. Baylor had 12 straight losing seasons before Briles arrived in 2008.

In a short time, according to his official bio, Briles has led the "restoration of the Baylor football program to among the national elite."

Baylor and Texas Christian have knocked the in-state stuffing out of Texas, which has struggled in the post-Mack Brown era.

Baylor also professes to hold itself to a higher moral standard that would be adamantly opposed to housing and educating a player such as Ukwuachu.

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Yet, instead of talking big-time football a week before the opener, the Baylor community awoke Wednesday to another Internet headline, this one via Bloomberg: "Baylor Football's Blind Eye to Violence."

Sport Illustrated recently reported that Florida, a school that once gave Aaron Hernandez a full scholarship, refused to consider accepting Ukwuachu as a transfer from Boise State.

Lost in the toxic blur of controversy is a program coming off consecutive 11-win seasons and Big 12 Conference titles, a team that led the nation in yards per game (581) and scoring (48.2) averages last season.

Baylor returns 17 starters. The key issue is at quarterback, where Seth Russell replaces the prolific Bryce Petty. But so far the system run by Briles has proved to be a plug-and-go operation, in which the quarterback needs to be proficient more than brilliant.

Baylor has not yet addressed its biggest playoff obstacle issue — a shameful nonconference schedule. This season it's Southern Methodist, Lamar and Rice, leading to a Big 12 slate that does not end with a conference title game.

It's the continuation of a Bowl Championship Series-era dodge-ball philosophy that proved costly in last season's playoff exclusion. Baylor might be the only team from a Power Five league that needs to go undefeated to guarantee itself a spot in the top four.

Baylor will certainly be closely monitored, on and off the field.

Welcome to the big time.

Top 25 so far: 25. Michigan; 24. Nebraska; 23. Utah; 22. Missouri; 21. Arkansas; 20. Tennessee. 19. Boise State; 18. Oklahoma; 17. Notre Dame; 16. Wisconsin; 15. Georgia Tech; 14. UCLA; 13. Arizona; 12. Florida State; 11. Arizona State; 10. Georgia; 9. USC.; 8. Auburn; 7. Clemson.

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