By Shehan Jeyarajah
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – At first glance, the 43rd annual Fiesta Bowl in Glendale is not a marquee matchup. The game features No. 6 Baylor University against No. 15 University of Central Florida in each school’s first ever appearance in a BCS bowl. The lack of name value has lessened the stature of the game, but this year’s Fiesta Bowl is a program-altering milestone for both Baylor and UCF.
“Look at the stage,” UCF linebacker Terrance Plummer said on media day. “We have a chance to put UCF on the map, go 12-1 which we have never done before and change the culture, let everyone know there’s a team in Orlando that wants a little respect also.”
In 1996, UCF moved to the FBS after 17 years of playing at lower levels of NCAA football. The tide really started to turn for UCF football 10 years ago with the hiring of George O’Leary as head coach in 2004. Since his hiring, O’Leary has led UCF to six bowl games. Heading into the Fiesta Bowl, the Knights have two bowl wins under O’Leary.
“Coach O’Leary always thought that we would be a great team,” UCF safety Brandon Alexander said. “When I got here, we just bought into a system. He laid all his ground rules down, told us what we need to do. It’s not all about football, it’s about getting a degree, it’s about your GPA, it’s about getting jobs in the future. He didn’t promise that you’d get on the field, but he promised that you’d graduate.”
Heading into the 2013 football season, UCF moved from Conference USA into the American Athletic Conference. Unlike C-USA, the AAC has one of six automatic qualifying bids to BCS bowl games.
“I can’t say I expected to be playing in a BCS game when I committed to Central Florida,” UCF quarterback Blake Bortles said. “We probably had a very slim chance to make it to a BCS game in C-USA. It’s been really a special journey to be able to move to the AAC, win the conference and make it this year.”
Junior UCF linebacker Terrance Plummer emphasized the culture change that’s happening at UCF around the football team.
“The atmosphere around campus has been electric, people coming up to us and saying great job,” Plummer said with a smile. “That’s something I’ve never been a part of. We’re trying to be like Florida, like Florida State, guys who are clearly in BCS bowl games and playing for national championships. That’s what Coach O’Leary is trying to build here.”
On the other side, Baylor is a school that was very recently a bottom-feeder in the Big 12 conference and college football. Baylor did not post a winning record in the Big 12 until Art Briles’s third year in 2010. The Bears had nine straight last place finishes in the Big 12 South during that stretch.
Baylor football coach Art Briles was hired in 2008 after a 3-9 season in 2007. In his third season, Briles took Baylor to their first bowl game since 1994. Since then, Briles has become the first Baylor coach to lead his team to four straight bowl appearances, and the first coach to bring Baylor to a BCS bowl.
“Being at Baylor the first couple of years, people weren’t really excited about the football program,” senior defensive end Christ McAllister said. “They didn’t really come to the games. The better we got, the more people came, the more exciting it was. Football is fun in Waco right now.”
Senior safety Ahmad Dixon was a highly rated recruit out of Waco’s Midway High School. Dixon spurned offers from such schools as Texas, Alabama, Auburn and Oklahoma to stay close to home, and he knows how far the program has come.
“Growing up in this city, seeing how this program started out, tickets were being given away for getting Happy Meals, or being given away for straight As or perfect attendance in school,” Dixon said. “I grew up in Waco, so seeing this program get up to where it is now, I don’t even know how to describe it.”
Baylor’s executive associate athletic director for external affairs Nick Joos and athletic director Ian McCaw emphasized that while the BCS appearance does benefit the university financially, the real benefit is the exposure that a national stage provides for Baylor football, and the university as a whole.
While being in the game is a monumental accomplishment in itself, both teams know that an appearance is not the goal.
“We’re not just here to represent ourselves, or our community, we’re here to represent the Big 12,” Dixon said. “Once upon a time, it was an argument about which conference was best. In order to show everybody which conference is the best, we have to show up and show out.”
No. 6 Baylor and No. 15 UCF will each look to win their first ever BCS bowl in the 43rd annual Tostitos Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz. at 7:30 p.m. on New Year’s Day. The game will be nationally broadcast on ESPN.