At first glance, and then again at second and, perhaps, a third glance. it is fairly apparent that the No. 2 team in the Big 12 bowl pecking order is playing in the better bowl game than the conference champion.
Oklahoma finished second in the Big 12 football race in 2013 and that was enough in the collective wisdom of the Sugar Bowl selection committee to pair the Sooners with the SEC No, 2 team, defensing national champion Alabama, in this year’s game on Jan. 3 in New Orleans. By rule, the Big 12 champion earns the league’s automatic bid to the BCS Fiesta Bowl in Glendale. Ariz. This season that team is Baylor, which finished the regular season 11-1, demolishing most every team it came up against, including Bob Stoops’ Sugar Bowl-bound Soners, and led the country all season in scoring and total offense.
Baylor’s reward for winning its first outright Big 12 championship in football is a date in the desert with Central Florida. That’s not a typographical misprint. The Central Florida Knights are, in fact, the team that will line up on the opposite sideline from the Big 12 champion Bears on Jan. 1 at University of Phoenix Stadium, situated about 10 miles north of, you guessed it, downtown Phoenix.
It’s probably true that not too many people, outside of the fans of schools in the newly formed American Athletic Conference, know very much, if anything, about the University of Central Florida. But trust me, it would be a grevious mistake for Baylor to feel the least bit disrespected and take this team lightly, thinking the trip to Arizona will be like a leisurely stroll through the Land of the Saguaros.
UCF, as its name implies, is located in the central part of the state in Orlando. The Knights ended the regular season with the identical record as Baylor at 11-1. Their lone loss was by three points to South Carolina. They were undefeated in the first year of the American Athletic Conference, including a win over 19th-ranked Louisville. UCF won the AAC Championship by defeating SMU last Saturday and is ranked 15th in the final BCS standings for this season – and any season, with the new College Playoff coming in 2014.
The Knights are the lowest ranked team of the seven teams, excluding Florida State and Auburn, who will play in the National Championship game, who received invites to BCS bowls. Given this situation, it would not be unlikely for the Baylor players to feel a bit disrespected and that UCF is not of the same caliber because they don’t play nearly as strong or competitive a schedule as the Big 12.
This may or may not be what’s going on in the minds and perceptions of the Baylor players, and it’s probably safe to say that this is not at all what head coach Art Briles and the other Bears’ coaches are thinking. Let’s hope not, anyway, because, to go into the Fiesta Bowl, or any other BCS bowl, with the idea that you’ve already achieved your season goal by winning the conference championship and, therefore, overlook or not take your bowl opponent seriously is a game plan guaranteed to deliver an undesireable result.
And it seems the Fiesta Bowl has been a showcase in recent years of these types of outcomes. To wit: Oklahoma vs. BCS-busting Boise State in the 2006 season and, just a year later, Oklahoma and West Virginia at the exact same venue. In both games, the Sooners were prohibitive favorites and the higher ranked team coming in, but both times Oklahoma came out on the losing end, and against West Virginia, the game wasn’t even close. In both instances, the Sooners looked as if they were there for the fun, while their opponents approached the game with a swagger and a mind-set that was much more business-like.
And it hasn’t been just in the Fiesta Bowl where David has triumphed over Goliath as a result of underestimating the opponent’s collective will and determination to succeed, regardless of which team has the most telent or the better skills. In the 2008 Sugar Bowl (played in January 2009), underrated and underappreciated Utah was paired against mighty Alabama, which just the year before has won the national championship.
The Crimson Tide was a heavy favorite over the Utes but came into the Sugar Bowl game seemingly disappointed that they weren’t in the BCS National Championship game for a second straight January. You could see it in their body language and in their performance on the field. Utah came to play, and it showed, both on the field and on the scoreboard, as Utah had a relatively easy time in pulling off the 31-17 upset. Utah had built a 21-0 first-quarter advantage before Alabama realized what had hit them.
Just last season, in the Sugar Bowl, again, third-ranked Florida was paired with No. 21 Louisville. Same scenario. Florda didn’t think Louisville belonged on the same field. I don’t have to tell you what happened, I’m sure you’ve gotten the drift by now. For the record, Louisville, behind quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, jumped out to a quick 14-o lead in the opening quarter, and – you guessed it – the game was effectively over.
That brings us back to the original premise of this commentary. Baylor may not be playing Alabama or Ohio State – and that’s not such a bad thing, actually – but they are paired with a ranked team and a conference champion. Central Florida was just three points away from having an undefeated season, and you don’t win 11 games in any season or any league unless you are a pretty darn good team.
Rest assured, the Big 12 champions will be sufficiently challenged. If the Bears approach this game any other way, they’ll be reduced to watching the other team celebrate the victory on the field afterward and wishing that they could have another chance to get another result.