(15) UCF (11-1) vs. (6) Baylor (11-1)|
Wednesday, January 1, 8:30 p.m. (ET)
By Mike Castiglione, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The 15th-ranked UCF Knights and No. 6 Baylor Bears will both
compete in their first-ever BCS bowls on New Year's Day when they square off
in the 43rd annual Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium.
UCF went undefeated in the American Athletic Conference and finished the
regular season with eight straight wins, the longest winning streak in school
history. The Knights' lone loss was a 28-25 setback to South Carolina in late
September. The Knights, under the guidance of AAC Coach of the Year George
O'Leary, are making their fourth postseason appearance in the last five
seasons and have won their last two bowl games.
O'Leary recently spoke about how he's been able to turn the program around
over the past 10 years since his arrival, from an 0-11 team to this year's
11-1 BCS bowl squad.
"We did what you should do as a coach taking over a program - you build a
foundation," O'Leary said. "Each year you put some furniture in the building.
The big thing is that we have gotten better each year. We have had our ups and
downs, but I think that the consistency of the program and the culture of the
program is in place to move forward and to continue to get better each and
Meanwhile, Baylor won its first Big 12 Conference title thanks mostly to an
offense that put up video game-like numbers throughout the season. The Bears
notched their first-ever 11-win season and are going bowling for the
fourth straight year after claiming a 49-26 win over UCLA in last season's
Holiday Bowl. A school-record 10 All-Big 12 awards were handed out, including
Coach of the Year Art Briles, Player of the Year Bryce Petty and Offensive
Lineman of the Year Cyril Richardson.
This will be the first-ever meeting between these two programs.
UCF's offense is led by AAC Offensive Player of the Year, quarterback Blake
Bortles. The redshirt junior ranks ninth nationally in passing efficiency
(163.3) and has been a steadying presence all season long. Bortles has
averaged 273 yards per game through the air, while completing 68 percent of
his passes and has tossed 22 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. Bortles
ran for two TDs in the conference title game at SMU, as the Knights went to
their up-tempo, no-huddle "Fastball" offense after a slow start. He has been a
big reason why, two years after losing six games by seven points or less, the
Knights went 7-1 in such tight games this season. First-Team All-AAC running
back Storm Johnson headlines the ground game with 1,015 rushing yards (5.3
ypc) and 11 touchdowns.
The UCF defense held nine of its 12 opponents below their scoring average this
season. The Knights rank 13th nationally in scoring defense (19.6 ppg) and
19th in total yards allowed (346.3 ypg). They enter the Fiesta Bowl having
held five of their last six foes to 20 points or less and gave up just 13
points against SMU. The Knights boast solid depth on the defensive side of the
ball, as 17 different players were credited with a sack this year and six
different players recorded multiple interceptions.
Whereas the Knights have the dangerous Bortles under center, the Bears feature
a big-time quarterback of their own in Bryce Petty, the engineer of Baylor's
top-ranked scoring offense (53.3) and total offense (624.5). The Bears, who
scored at least 69 points in five of their first six games, are the only FBS
school to average better than 300 passing yards and 250 rushing yards per
tilt. They are 14 points away from setting the all-time NCAA record for most
points in a 13-game season.
Petty leads the nation with 17.47 yards per completion and is second in
passing efficiency (179.2). He also shares the team lead with 11 rushing
scores. Big-play senior receiver Tevin Reese paces the country in yards per
catch (25.0) and has caught a BCS-era record 21 touchdowns of 40 yards or
more, while fellow wideout Antwan Goodley leads the Big 12 in receiving yards
per game (109.9) and receiving TDs (13). Goodley's eight 100-yard receiving
games this season also tops the nation and is one away from BU's all-time
single-season mark. In the backfield, the shifty Lache Seastrunk tops the Big
12 with 106.0 rushing yards per game and is averaging 7.5 yards per carry,
which ranks ninth nationally.
Coach O'Leary was asked what he will tell his players about being labeled the
underdog against the Bears and their high-powered attack.
"I don't know about that," he said. "Our players will compete. Our players are
very excited about the game and are very excited about to get to Arizona and
play. They are looking forward to the trip. They understand what we need to
get done to go out and compete against a team like Baylor."
While Baylor's offensive prowess is well documented, its defense has gone
somewhat unnoticed. Although there have been a few shootouts this season, the
unit does rank 17th nationally in total defense (344.0 ypg) and 19th in
scoring defense (21.2 ppg allowed). As with virtually any team, takeaways have
been a key element to success. The Bears are 24-2 when forcing two or more
turnovers over the past three seasons under defensive coordinator Phil
Bennett. They allowed just 10 points to Texas in the Big 12 title game and
came away with two interceptions of Case McCoy, who completed only 12-of-34
passes. Senior All-American safety Ahmad Dixon leads the way with 5.8 tackles
per game to go along with an interception and a forced fumble on the season.
UCF went undefeated on the road (6-0) for the first time in school history.
The team simply knows how to grind out wins, as seven of its victories came by
seven points or less. Winning this matchup certainly won't be easy against a
Baylor team that spent eight straight weeks ranked in the top-10. The head-to-
head matchup between quarterbacks Bortles and Petty alone figures to be worth
the price of admission.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Baylor 45, UCF 31
12/29 14:35:04 ET