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Baylor nearing full strength in first BCS game
In the first season of the BCS in 1998, the Fiesta Bowl was just a glimmer in the eyes of Baylor and UCF.
In 1998, Baylor was just starting its Big 12 doormat phase, going 2-9. UCF fared much better that year, going 9-2 with quarterback Daunte Culpepper. But the Knights — still the Golden Knights back then — were new to college football’s upper division and hadn’t even joined a conference.
Now, in the final year of the BCS, Baylor and UCF will meet in the Fiesta Bowl, the highlights (so far) for the programs Art Briles and George O’Leary, respectively, have built.
Led by first-year quarterback Bryce Petty, Baylor led the nation in total offense at 623.8 yards per game, but the Bears rarely marched down the field in the classic sense. Baylor led the nation in plays longer than 30 yards and regularly scored in a minute or less.
UCF may have a quarterback who can keep up. Blake Bortles averaged 273.3 passing yards per game with 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions, regularly showing the ability to make the key play under pressure.
While the Fiesta Bowl won’t be the most watched game, both teams hope to use this as a springboard to building regular contenders for major prizes.
“We don't feel like we're at the mountaintop, though,” Briles said. “We're still striving to be a respectable program year in and year out, to be a formidable opponent every time someone steps on the field against us, and that'll never change.”
Baylor vs. UCF
Kickoff: Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Baylor by 16.5
Three Things to Watch
Baylor’s healthy returns
Baylor finished the season with a handful of key injuries, particularly on offense. Running backs Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin returned in time for the final two games against TCU and Texas after missing the loss to Oklahoma State. Tevin Reese, Baylor’s top wide receiver before missing nearly the entirety of the final five games, is expected to be back. The Bears’ top linebacker, Bryce Hager, is questionable. Left tackle Spencer Drango doesn’t have as clean a bill of health as his teammates after undergoing back surgery, but this game will still the be the healthiest Baylor has been since Oct. 26.
UCF’s change of leadership on defense
UCF had a steady defense for most of the season, ranking ninth in red zone defense, 13th in rush defense and 17th in pass efficiency defense. All of that is the good news. The bad news is the departure of the leader of that defense. Rhode Island hired UCF defensive coordinator Jim Fleming has head coach. That’s not an ideal situation ahead of facing the nation’s top offense.
Baylor’s run game
Not coincidentally, Baylor’s only loss this season was the only game when the Bears failed to get a steady rushing attack. Throw out the Oklahoma State loss and Baylor averages 280 yards and 5.6 yards per carry. With Seastrunk and Martin healthy again, Baylor’s offense doesn’t need to rely quite as heavily on Bryce Petty, tough that’s not an awful strategy. UCF ranked 13th in the country in fewest rushing yards per game (116.5) but 36th in yards per carry (3.9).
Key Player: Blake Bortles, UCF
Bortles has become something of a folk hero for his ability to make the impossible play or unlikely comeback — for starters, UCF trailed by three touchdowns in the third quarter at Louisville before winning 38-35. Bortles has been at his best this season under pressure, either on the scoreboard or facing a pass rush. Baylor will counter with playmaking defensive backs Ahmad Dixon and K.J. Morton. It’s not a stretch to say if UCF is going to overcome its underdog status, Bortles will need to be the key player early and often.
The Fiesta Bowl features the least amount of recognition for the casual fan who is used to tuning into Jan. 1 bowl games featuring national powers. What the name lacks in traditional programs, it should make up for it in enthusiasm. Where teams like Alabama and Ohio State might be disappointed to be in a BCS game rather than the title game, both Baylor and UCF ought to be thrilled to be making their first BCS appearances. Baylor is the big-time favorite here with its imposing offense and wins over Texas and Oklahoma for the Big 12 title. UCF won nail-biters against lesser teams like Memphis, Temple, USF and SMU, but the Knights beat Penn State and Louisville on the road and gave South Carolina fits in the Gamecocks’ visit to Orlando. UCF may have the advantage in a close game after the Knights went 7-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, but Baylor has a way of making sure games don’t stay close for long.
Prediction: Baylor 48, UCF 28