(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 every year."
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