By Shehan Jeyarajah
After winning its first Big 12 Championship on Saturday night, Baylor football earned a bid to play in a BCS bowl game for the first time in the history of the BCS. With their conference championship, the Bears are pegged to go to the 43rd annual Tostitos Fiesta Bowl at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. where the Bears will face American Athletic Conference champion No. 15 University of Central Florida Knights.
“Baylor Nation and our football program are honored and energized by the invitation to the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl,” director of athletics Ian McCaw said. “This is the culmination to a very special year for Baylor football, and we look forward to a great football game on New Year’s night.”
UCF surprised many with its dominant season in the AAC and second all-time AP ranking. The Knights started the season unranked before finishing the season 11-1, with their only loss being to No. 12 South Carolina. The Gamecocks have since moved up to No. 9.
Outside of the loss to South Carolina, UCF went undefeated throughout its conference schedule, including a road win over Big 10 opponent Penn State in State College, Penn. The Knights’ signature win was a 38-35 win on Oct. 18 at No. 8 Louisville to spoil the Cardinals’ shot at a perfect season.
Central Florida has outscored its opponents this season by a combined 365-215, capped off by a 62-17 explosion against Connecticut on Oct. 26. The Knights rank 45th overall in total offense with 432.0 yards per game, and rank 41st in scoring offense with 33.2 points per game.
Junior quarterback Blake Bortles is the unquestioned offensive leader of the UCF Knights, and has been called a potential first-round NFL Draft pick in the upcoming draft. Bortles has thrown for 3,280 yards and 22 touchdowns on the season. Against Louisville, Bortles led a 75-yard drive and threw a clutch touchdown pass to take a 38-35 lead with only 23 second remaining in the game.
The Knights have a relatively weak rushing attack that ranked 79th in the country with 152.0 yards per game. Junior running back Storm Johnson rushed for 1,015 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. Johnson added 261 yards and three touchdowns receiving. Freshman running back William Stanback compiled 410 yards rushing and six touchdowns on limited touches.
UCF’s defense was rated as one of the top defenses in the country. The Knights rank 19th in total defense, giving up an average of 346.3 yards per game. Their 19.6 points against also ranks them 13th in the nation. The defense could be characterized as opportunistic, as they average more than two takeaways per game.
UCF has been one of the best in the nation at red-zone defense. Baylor has struggled mightily in the past few games at scoring in the red-zone, and UCF may be able to take advantage. UCF is not great at getting third down stops, and a Baylor team that excels at making things happen on third down should look to take chances.
Both of these teams are solid football teams who have played great seasons, but Baylor should come out as the better football team. USA Today’s Jeff Sagarin rates UCF’s schedule as the 92nd in both FBS and FCS football.
Out of Baylor’s 11 games against FBS teams, eight were against opponents who finished the season bowl-eligible. On the other hand, UCF played against 12 FBS teams and five of its opponents finished the season bowl-eligible. UCF’s opponents finished with a combined record of 62-82. Baylor’s opponents finished with a record of 70-62.
UCF doesn’t have the running game to be able to try and keep the ball out of Baylor’s hands. If Baylor’s defense can take away the passing game from Bortles and make Johnson and Bortles’ feet beat them, UCF does not have the firepower to keep up with Baylor’s offense. Baylor allows only 207.8 yards of passing per game.
Baylor should get junior linebacker Bryce Hager back from injury for the bowl game after missing the last three games with a groin injury. Sophomore left tackle Spencer Drango has a chance to return from back surgery. Senior wide receiver Tevin Reese is not expected to return from a dislocated wrist, but a return is not impossible.
The Bears have a chance to run away with their first BCS bowl win on New Year’s Day. The win would be their third straight bowl victory and fourth straight bowl appearance. Both of those marks would be school records.
The Fiesta Bowl is one of five BCS bowl games, along with the Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Rose Bowl and BCS National Championship. The BCS bowls are considered to be the most significant postseason action in college football in lieu of an actual playoff system. This is the final year of BCS bowl selection, as the FBS is moving to a four-team playoff system next year to determine the national champion.
The champion of the Big 12 historically is picked to play in the Fiesta Bowl against an at-large team. The champion of the American Athletic Conference is guaranteed at least one of the at-large bids in the BCS, and this year that team was UCF. Baylor is the fourth different team to represent the Big 12 at the Fiesta Bowl in the last five seasons. Oregon is the most recent champion after the Ducks defeated Kansas State in 2013.
No. 6 Baylor football will face the No. 15 University of Central Florida at 7:30 p.m. on New Year’s Day at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. The game will be broadcast live nationally on ESPN.