Fiesta Bowl Preview
December 31, 2013
By Joe Nelson
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The Fiesta Bowl will close down the busy New Year’s Day bowl schedule and while the spread is the largest of any game in the bowl season, there will be a lot to watch in a matchup between Central Florida and Baylor, two programs that have made a dramatic rise in the last decade. Here is a look at both teams and what to look for Wednesday night the Fiesta Bowl.
Matchup: Central Florida Knights vs. Baylor Bears
Venue: University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona
Date: Wednesday, January 1, 2014
Time/TV: 8:30 PM ET – ESPN
Line: Baylor -16½, Over/Under 68
While this matchup does not feature traditional powers and may garner the lowest national TV draw of the major bowls, there should not be a lack of entertainment value on the field. Baylor has proven to be one of the most exciting teams in the nation with eye-popping statistics on the season, posting over 625 yards per game on 7.6 yards per play to lead the nation. The Bears also have a great defensive numbers but the schedule has certainly come into question.
Playing in the American Athletic Conference allowed Central Florida to play a relatively soft slate this season as well but non-conference games with Penn State and South Carolina added some heft to the schedule. It took a wild comeback, but the Knights are in this game because they won at Louisville, the overwhelming favorite in the conference this season. Through the rest of the conference schedule Central Florida had some close calls but they finished 8-0 to claim this spot.
Both coaches have interesting storylines with George O’Leary in his 10th season in Orlando. O’Leary is an interesting character that was briefly hired as the head coach at Notre Dame after posting success at Georgia Tech before it was revealed that he had lied on his resume. After a short stint as an assistant in the NFL he has found a home with the Knights, with this being the fourth 10-win season in the last seven years after going 0-11 in his first season with the team.
Art Briles surprised many by opting to take over at Baylor after the 2007 season after a quick rise to prominence in four years at Houston. He has transformed Baylor from being a continual doormat to being a national contender, getting the Bears to 10 wins in 2011 and flirting with the national title conversation this season while delivering a Big XII championship. His success has also made him a potential candidate for the upcoming opening in Austin.
The quarterbacks also will get a lot of press leading up to this game as both players emerged out of national anonymity to post brilliant seasons. Forced to follow-up epic seasons from Robert Griffin III and Nick Florence, Bryce Petty wound up finishing seventh in the Heisman voting this season despite completing just seven passes in 2012. Petty should eclipse 4,000 passing yards for his junior season in this game and he has thrown 30 touchdown passes while being intercepted just twice.
The casual college football fan may not have heard of Central Florida junior Blake Bortles until this season as a very solid statistical season last year in a 10-4 campaign for the Knights did not get noticed by many. After a great season this year that was mostly overlooked nationally Bortles will be on the radar in April as a serious NFL draft prospect should he opt to enter the draft. Bortles completed over 68 percent of his passes this season and while his numbers can’t match the glowing statistics Petty posted, he has the size and arm strength coveted at the next level and proved to be a clutch performer in several close games this season.
The strength of schedule is a conversation piece for both teams this season. By most measures Baylor played the tougher overall slate with the strength of the Big XII and with Buffalo turning out to be a solid team this season though the non-conference slate was not daunting. The 7-0 start for Baylor certainly deserved some scrutiny but the Bears delivered blowout wins over Oklahoma and Texas Tech before being on the wrong end of a blowout at Oklahoma State.
Central Florida won at Penn State early in the year in what at the time looked like a big win and then nearly rallied back against South Carolina at home after blowing an early lead. The AAC did not offer the overall depth that the Big XII featured but the win at Louisville is likely a higher caliber win than anything Baylor produced this season, especially after seeing the Cardinals dominate in bowl action last weekend.
Baylor struggled the most in the games where the running game for the Bears was slowed down and Central Florida was very tough against the run this season, allowing just 116 yards per game on 3.9 yards per rush. Baylor actually only allowed 3.3 yards per rush this season but the statistics are a bit skewed with the huge leads the Bears built in many games.
Both teams should be motivated for this opportunity as the first BCS bowl game ever for either team. Fan support may be limited on both sides however as Baylor returned over 5,000 of the required 17,500 ticket allotment while UCF reportedly returned more than 10,000 of those tickets despite one of the largest enrollments in the nation, with the school looking at heavy financial losses.
AAC Bowl Results: The AAC has gone 1-2 SU and 2-1 ATS so far in bowl action. Rutgers lost but covered as a heavy underdog against Notre Dame. Cincinnati and Louisville were involved in blowout bowl games with the Bearcats losing badly to North Carolina and Louisville dominating Miami in matchups with the ACC. Houston will be the fifth bowl team to play from the AAC facing Vanderbilt in the Compass Bowl.
Big XII Bowl Results: Kansas Sate delivering a win and cover in a 31-14 victory over Michigan Saturday for the debut for the Big XII in the postseason. Texas was blasted 30-7 by Oregon in Mack Brown's finale but Texas Tech made up for that loss with a 37-23 win over Arizona State as a 16-point underdog in the Holiday Bowl. Texas and Texas Tech play Monday while Oklahoma and Oklahoma State will play Thursday and Friday this week.
Line Movement: The line opened at -17 as the largest spread of the bowl season but it has fallen to -16½ at most outlets. This game also features the highest total of the bowl season, opening at 68 and climbing to 69½ and even hitting 70 at some outlets.
Central Florida Historical Trends: The Knights have only been an underdog of 10 or more points three times the last four seasons, covering in all three instances. UCF is 8-4 ATS as a double-digit underdog since 2007 while going 18-10 ATS as an underdog at any price in that span. Central Florida is 2-3 S/U but 3-2 ATS in five bowl games under O’Leary, winning and covering in each of the last two bowl games including the modest upset over Georgia in the 2010 Liberty Bowl.
Baylor Historical Trends: Baylor was an ATS darling this season, finishing 9-3 ATS on the season, a mark that was 8-1 ATS in the first nine games of the season for a team that became very popular to back with high scoring potential. After the Bears were blown out against Illinois in the 2010 Texas Bowl, the first postseason trip under Briles, Baylor has won and covered the last two seasons in bowl action, scoring 116 points in the process, although also allowing 82 points. Since 2000 Baylor is 35-15 ATS as a favorite and the Bears are on a 15-4 ATS run as a double-digit favorite going back to early 2010.