Holiday Bowl Preview and Prediction: Baylor vs. UCLA

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Expect plenty of points in the UCLA-Baylor showdown.

<p> Holiday Bowl Preview and Prediction: Baylor vs. UCLA</p>

If you like offense, the Holiday Bowl is one of the postseason’s must-watch matchups. Baylor and UCLA each averaged over 35 points and 470 yards a game, so this game could be one of the highest-scoring contests of the bowl season

UCLA has claimed back-to-back Pac-12 South titles, but this season's team showed big improvement after finishing 6-8 last year. New coach Jim Mora assembled an excellent staff, while making the Bruins more relevant on the recruiting trail. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone deserves a ton of credit for his work with quarterback Brett Hundley, who ranked as one of the top redshirt freshmen in college football in 2012. The Bruins lost four games in Pac-12 play but nearly beat Stanford in the conference championship and knocked off USC 38-28 to win the division title.

The post-Robert Griffin III era at Baylor went the way most expected. Well, sort of. The Bears started 3-0 but lost their next four games. However, both sides of the ball found their rhythm late in the year, which allowed Baylor to finish with victories in four out of its final five games. The Bears knocked off conference champ Kansas State in mid-November, came within eight of beating Oklahoma and defeated Oklahoma State in the regular season finale.

Holiday Bowl – UCLA vs. Baylor

Date and Time: Dec. 27 at 9:45 p.m. ET
Network: ESPN
Location:  San Diego, Calif.

When the UCLA Bruins have the ball:

After dealing with injuries and inconsistency at quarterback over the last couple of years, UCLA finally found its answer with redshirt freshman Brett Hundley. In 13 games this year, he threw for 3,411 yards and 26 touchdowns, while adding 365 yards and nine scores on the ground. Hundley is a perfect fit for coordinator Noel Mazzone’s spread attack, as the offense allows the redshirt freshman to quickly deliver the ball to the receivers, while taking advantage of his mobility on read-option plays.

When Hundley throws, his favorite receivers this year have been Shaquelle Evans and tight end Joseph Fauria. Evans leads the team in receptions (53) and yards (795), while Fauria ranked first with 11 scores. Jerry Johnson, Steven Manfro and Jordan Payton are other key targets for Hundley, but expect Evans and Fauria to see most of the targets.

Although the offense took a huge step forward thanks to Hundley’s development, the play of running back Johnathan Franklin shouldn’t be overlooked. The senior recorded his second 1,000-yard season of his career in 2012, rushing for 1,700 yards and 13 touchdowns on 268 attempts. Franklin is a key factor in the passing game, catching 32 passes for 319 yards and two scores.

Baylor’s defense was expected to be better in coordinator Phil Bennett’s second year, but the Bears finished 119th nationally in yards allowed and gave up 38.2 points a game. However, this unit played showed some signs of life at times, holding Kansas State to 24 points and ended the year with 25 forced turnovers.

The Bears will have their hands full in this matchup, as UCLA was held under 20 points only two times this year. The Bears have to find a way to slow down Franklin on early downs, while keeping Hundley in the pocket. Baylor hasn’t generated much pressure this year, so forcing turnovers will be a priority.

When the Baylor Bears have the ball:

Despite having to replace Robert Griffin, Baylor’s offense finished first nationally in total offense and averaged 44.1 points a game. Senior Nick Florence isn’t as mobile as Griffin, yet finished with 531 rushing yards and nine scores. Through the air, Florence tossed 31 touchdowns and 4,121 yards on 451 attempts.

With USC’s Marqise Lee and West Virginia’s Tavon Austin stealing the national spotlight, Baylor’s receiving corps often gets overlooked. However, the Bears have one of the top receiver trios in the nation, starting with senior and Biletnikoff finalist Terrance Williams. The senior grabbed 95 receptions for 1,764 yards and 12 scores this season. Tevin Reese and Lanear Sampson were solid No. 2 and No. 3 options, each catching 51 balls this year. Levi Norwood chipped in 39 receptions and Antwan Goodley stepped up late in the season by catching seven passes over his final three games.

Baylor’s offense became even more dangerous late in the year with the emergence of Lache Seastrunk at running back. The Oregon transfer had only 15 carries through the first five weeks but closed out the regular season with four 100-yard efforts in his final five contests. Seastrunk provides big-play ability in the backfield, averaging 7.6 yards per attempt and had an 80-yard touchdown run this year.

UCLA’s defensive stats weren’t as bad as Baylor but were nothing for Jim Mora to be pleased about. The Bruins ranked in the second half of the Pac-12 in total, scoring and pass defense but made up for the yards allowed by generating 3.3 sacks a game. Linebacker Anthony Barr was shifted from offense in the preseason and was a pleasant surprise for this unit. The junior generated 13.5 sacks and finished third on the team with 74 tackles.

This game is a huge test for the Bruins’ secondary, which has to matchup against one of the nation’s top receiving corps. Even if UCLA finds a way to slow down Williams, Reese and Sampson are capable of connecting with Florence on big plays. Considering the depth and talent in Baylor’s receiving corps, the Bruins have to get a consistent pass rush on Florence, which will help reduce the amount of pressure on the secondary. UCLA lost a key piece of the secondary for this game in late December, as safety Tevin McDonald was suspended due to a violation of team rules.

Final Analysis

There should be no shortage of yards and points in this game. The Holiday Bowl is usually one of the more entertaining postseason matchups, so this game should be one of the top-10 bowl games in 2012. Considering the offensive ability on both sidelines, timely stops and turnovers will be crucial. Baylor and UCLA will have plenty of highlights on offense, but the Bruins are slightly better on defense, which is just enough to pull out the victory.

Prediction: UCLA 41, Baylor 38


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