The Fiesta Bowl Selection Committee has done it again. It has come up with what appears, on paper, to be one the biggest mismatches of the holiday bowl season.
Big 12 champion Baylor (11-1) will meet American Athletic Conference champ Central Florida in the 2014 BCS Tostitos Fiesta Bowl to be played New Year’s night at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
The Fiesta Bowl was the site several years ago for another questionable matchup between the then Big 12 champion, Oklahoma, and Big East champion Connecticut, which turned out to be a complete mismatch with the Sooners winning big, 48-20. The Sooners also were involved in another bracket-busting encounter when they were paired with non-BCS Boise State, in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, which turned out to be one of the greatest finishes in modern bowl history
Were it not for one bad game at Oklahoma State, Baylor might have been in the national championship conversation. The Bears posted their first 11-win season in program history. In their 11 wins, only one team (TCU) came within single-digits of derailing the Bears, whose average margin if victory in their wins was 35 points. Baylor led the nation in total offense, averaging 624 yards per game.
Quarterback Bryce Petty put up league-leading passing numbers in leading the high-octane Baylor offense, completing 62 percent of his passes for an average of 324 yards a game. Thirty of his passes were for touchdowns and, remarkably, only two of his 356 total passes weere picked off by the opposition. Petty will also have his favorite target back for this game. One of the Big 12’s and the country’s top wide receivers, Tevin Reese, will return to action in this game after being out several games with a wrist injury. Reese averaged 25 yards per catch and had caught eight touchdown passes prior to his injury.
In addition to leading the conference in passing numbers, Baylor also can punish their opponents on the ground, with two of the top-10 rushers in the conference, including the league leader, junior Lache Seastrunk, who averaged over seven yards per carry and exceeded 1,000 yards for the season despite missing two games with an injury.
The Bears also play solid defense, which was a big contributing factor to their record success this season. The Baylor defensive unit finished second in the Big 12 to Oklahoma and giving up just 21 points and 344 yards per game.
Baylor is a 16 1/2-point favorite in the game. That is the largest point spread in any of the bowl games this season. Baylor head coach Art Briles’ biggest challenge in preparing his team for this game is making certain the Bears’ don’t bevcome complacent after a long, fairly easy and record-setting season and overlook their Fiesta Bowl opponent.
Central Florida did win 11 games, the same number as Baylor, and the 15th-ranked Knights also won their conference, which also includes Louisville, a team that finished No. 18 in the final BCS standings and to which UCF handed its only loss of the season. Central Florida’s lone loss this season was by three points to a very good South Carolina team that also is nationally ranked.
Most people don’t realize it, but Central Florida is pretty good on the defensive side of the ball, as well. The Knights are 12th in the country in scoring defense, allowing less than 20 points per game.
The Knights like to establish the run, which they do well, to set up a very good passing game. Their big gun on the ground is junior running back Storm Johnson, who ran for 1,058 yards this season and averaged over five yards a carry. Junior quarterback Blake Bortles isn’t reluctant to take off with the ball, as well, if the defense allows it. He ran for 366 yards on the season. When UCF goes to the air, it has four good receivers who have caught the majority of the passes from Bortles, led by Rannell Hall with 53 receptions for 773 yards and J.J. Worten with 42 catches for 665 yards. Johnson also gets in the act. He caught 29 passes during the regular season.
“They’re very disciplined and have a lot of guys that can run sideline to sideline,” Baylor’s Petty said. “Just because we haven’t heard much about them doesn’t mean they don’t have talent.”
This is the final season for the Big 12 agreement with the Fiesta Bowl as an automatic qualifier for the conference champion. Teams from the Big 12 have a 5-6 record in games since 1997. the first full season for the new conference.
Three Things To Watch For In The Game
- Baylor has started fast in most of its games this season, taking control from the start and putting its opponents on their heels and in catch-up mode right from the beginning. The Bears have outscored their opponents 201-50 in the first quarter and 387-110 by halftime. UCF must stall and stave off this rapid-burst tendency and be careful not to abandon its offensive game plan to early. The last thing the Central Florida offense wants to become is one dimensional against an aggressive, swarming Baylor “D” that has its ears pinned back.
- Picking up first downs and sustaining drives, which in effect keeps the Baylor’s high-scoring offense off the field, will be a key to staying in the game for UCF. Third-down conversions will be a critical success factor for both field position as well as slowing down the game. UCF has been successful 48 percent of the time on third-down conversion plays. The Baylor defense has been one of the Big 12’s best in stopping opponents on third down.
- Time of possession could also come into play. Baylor is a quick-strike offense with a good number of its scores coming on drives of less than two minutes. Central Florida has averaged possession time of almost 32 minutes per game this season, compared to 27 minutes for Baylor. If UCF can win this battle, it could put a strain and have a tiring effect on the Baylor defense come the late stages of the game.
Game prediction: Baylor 48, Central Florida 20 – Central Florida has not seen an offense as explosive as Baylor’s all season. The long layoff might impair some of the Bear’s offensive execution, but they have way too many weapons for UCF to hold them down for a full 60 minutes.