43rd Annual Tostitos Fiesta Bowl Preview
The Tostitos® Fiesta Bowl has a well-earned reputation as a trendsetter, and this New Year’s matchup is no exception. Ring in the new.
No. 6 Baylor and No. 15 UCF will celebrate their coming out party on the Bowl Championship Series stage at University of Phoenix Stadium Wednesday night, and what better way to bid farewell to current postseason structure than with two programs that are in ascension, seemingly destined to become major players in the new postseason format for years to come.
The match seems fitting for the bowl game that nine founders helped turn into a driving force, often a tour de force, on the national scene. The Tostitos® Fiesta Bowl has played host to seven national championship games, the most recent four under the BCS system that was adopted for the 1998 season. At the same time, the Tostitos® Fiesta Bowl also has separated itself from tradition in novel ways. The bowl hosted the first so-called BCS buster team, Utah, in the 2005 game, and the Urban Meyer/Alex Smith-led group proved itself more than worthy in a dominating victory over Big East Conference champion Pitt.
The Tostitos® Fiesta Bowl was at it again two years later when another BCS buster, Boise State, brought a perfect 12-0 record and enough gadgets to clutter Santa’s workshop in a 43-42 victory over Oklahoma. Head coach Chris Petersen’s Broncos sent the game into overtime on a hook-and-ladder play with seven seconds remaining, then used a Statue of Liberty run by tailback Ian Johnson to score the game-winning two-point conversion on the final play. Not done, Johnson proposed to his girlfriend, a Boise State cheerleader, on the sidelines during a postgame interview.
We may not see that this time, but we should expect to see something a little different.
A bowl that never has been afraid to play outside the box has a perfect pair of protagonists this time. In their own ways, Big 12 Conference champion Baylor (11-1) and American Athletic Conference titlist UCF (11-1) are so far outside the box it takes two transfers to get there from here.
Baylor head coach Art Briles’ post-modern offense has been about as close to unstoppable as there is in the NCAA FBS subdivision this season. The Bears lead the FBS in total offense and scoring, averaging more than 630 yards and 53 points a game. That is from an artist who began creating plays in his Big Chief tablet, de rigueur in school systems all over the country as a high school coach in north-central Texas. Briles eventually brought his up-tempo, fill-in-the-open-spaces approach to Houston and now Baylor. Of course, he used his Big Chief to jot down details during the Tostitos® Fiesta Bowl conference calls when the bowl pairings were set last month. You don’t lose yourself when you hit it big, you just lose your anonymity.
“Any time you are in a bowl game that has a B, C and S in it, it’s a big-time deal,” said Briles, whose Bears are playing in their fourth straight bowl game for the first time in school history. “When we got here, we felt this was something that needed to be done if we were ever going to have a feeling of accomplishment for the university and for the football program. Now that we’ve established ourselves as Big 12 champions, it’s not like we’ve reached the mountaintop.”
And if a target comes with it, that is fine, too.
“You like to have the target on your back, your chest, wherever they want to put it,” Briles said. “If people are not shooting at you, they’re not respecting you. We’re just trying to earn respect. It took us four or five years to get there. Now we are going to have to work hard to make sure we maintain that level of respect.”
UCF head coach George O’Leary has seen to it that the Knights are in the same situation, a team that will get its opponent’s best game. After building Georgia Tech into a power in the 1990s, O’Leary has overseen the final decade of UCF’s 45-year odyssey to national prominence.
The Knights began play as an NCAA Division III team in 1979, moved to Division II in 1982 and joined Division 1-A, now known as the FCS subdivision, in 1990. UCF took the final step in 1996, joining the FBS as an independent. After stops in the Mid-American Conference and Conference USA, the Knights celebrated their first year in the newly-created American Athletic Conference with a league championship and their fourth bowl game in five seasons.
“Any time you have a first for anything, people get very excited,” O’Leary said. “You shoot for the opportunity to play in a New Year’s Day bowl, a BCS bowl. You want to play the best.”
There are plenty of “bests” here Wednesday night on both sidelines and both sides of the ball. Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty is second in the nation to Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston in passing efficiency. He has completed 62 percent of his throws for 3,844 yards and 30 touchdowns with only two interceptions. Running back Lache Seastruck owns 1,060 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns, and wide receiver Antwan Goodley has 1,319 yards receiving and 13 touchdowns. Briles is the Big 12 coach of the year, Petty is the offensive player of the year and guard Cyril Richardson the offensive lineman of the year. And whatever you do, don’t blink. The Bears have scored 57 of their 76 offensive touchdowns on drives of two minutes or less.
UCF has the same kind of numbers. Quarterback Blake Bortles has completed 68 percent of his passes for 3,280 yards and 22 interceptions with only seven interceptions, and he is ranked No. 9 in FBS in passing efficiency. Halfback Storm Johnson has 1,015 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns. In an offense that moves the ball around, five receivers have at least 29 catches. One, J.J. Worton’s one-handed diving catch in the end zone with 66 seconds remaining in a 39-36 victory over Temple, might have been the catch of the year — all divisions. O’Leary was the AAC coach of the year, Bortles was the league’s offensive player of the year and six Knights made first team all-conference.
For all their similarities, however, there are noticeable differences. Baylor has swamped most opponents this season, scoring at least 70 points four times, at least 60 twice more and stopping at 59 in a seventh. UCF has won seven games by a touchdown or less, including three-point victories over Penn State and then No. 6-Louisville. In four of those games, the Knights scored or kept an opponent from scoring on first-and-goal situations in the final
“It does take resilience. It takes a team that has great poise and believes in itself (and) has great confidence in the ability to make a play when it has to make a play,” O’Leary said. “That’s something you have to learn, to teach, to make sure they understand. Our senior class has done a great job of leadership. We don’t have many of them, but collectively they’ve done a great job of corralling the young kids and making sure they understand what it takes to win and why we play for 60 minutes. One of the reasons we have been successful at crunch time is there’s a belief that this game is our game, we’re just waiting for an opportunity to make a play. That’s what they believe. I keep preaching to them, great effort, good things will eventually happen. It has this year.”
Quarterback Daunte Culpepper, halfback Kevin Smith and Joe Burnett are among the standout players who helped UCF take the first steps forward when it joined the FBS. Baylor has produced a long line of standout players such as Ronnie Bull, Bill Glass, Mike Singletary, Don Trull and coach Grant Teaff. The Bears never had this kind of sustained success, however, until Briles began a streak of four straight bowl appearances in the Texas Bowl against Illinois in 2011. The Bears have beaten Pac-12 Conference schools Washington and UCLA in their two bowl games, racking 116 points in the process with quarterback
Robert Griffin III leading the charge against Washington in 2011 and Nick Florence calling the signals against UCLA in 2012.
“We got our battery boosted, and now we’re still rolling,” Briles said about the recent success. “When Robert was here, winning the Heisman and the 10-win season, it certainly increased our national image. What we’ve been able to do is get players who are more ready which gives us a better opportunity to keep ascending. We’re not having to sell vision and hope anymore. The reality is already there. People believe. It is not just us believing. Everybody believes.”