Several factors led to the best seasons in school history for both Baylor and Central Florida.
Without question, outstanding quarterback play is at the top of those lists.
In what most feel is the best quarterback matchup of this bowl season, Bryce Petty leads No. 6 Baylor and the nation’s most potent offense into the Fiesta Bowl against Blake Bortles and 15th-ranked Central Florida on New Year’s Day.
This is the first BCS bowl game for both Baylor (11-1) and UCF (11-1) after each earned conference titles.
The Bears’ hopes for a national championship were dashed with a lopsided loss to Oklahoma State on Nov. 23, but they rebounded to win their next two games. A 30-10 victory over Texas in the regular-season finale gave Baylor 11 wins for the first time and the Big 12 crown, the school’s first outright conference title since winning the SWC in 1980.
“Now that we’ve established ourselves as Big 12 champions, like I told the freshmen earlier today, it’s not like we’ve reached the mountaintop,” coach Art Briles said. “We’ve still got a lot to reach for. We’re at a good point in our program and now the duty is to maintain that.”
This is also uncharted territory for UCF, which wrapped up a BCS bid with Louisville’s win over Cincinnati on Dec. 5 and added the inaugural American Athletic Conference title by holding off SMU 17-13 in an ice storm two days later.
The Knights also won 11 games in 2010, but that led to the Liberty Bowl as opposed to a BCS berth. They have won a school-record eight straight, only two by more than seven points, since a 28-25 loss to then-No. 12 South Carolina on Sept. 28.
“It’s something everyone at UCF is excited about, the administration, the fan base,” coach George O’Leary said. “Anytime you have a first in anything, people get very excited, but especially when you’re invited to a bowl like the Fiesta.”
O’Leary becomes the latest coach tasked with finding a way to slow Baylor’s nearly point-per-minute offense. That unit scored a nation-best 53.3 points per game and averaged 624.4 yards - both just shy of setting NCAA records for points (56.0) and yards (624.9).
Keeping Petty in check would be a good way to start, but that’s been a rare occurrence this season.
The junior, who has said he’s returning next season, threw for 3,844 yards with 30 touchdowns and only two interceptions. He ranks second in the country in passing efficiency (179.18) and first with 17.47 yards per completion.
Petty was named the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year after leading the conference in passing TDs (12) and 300-yard games (9).
He’s thrown one pick with 20 touchdowns in his last 264 attempts.
“I think there’s a lot of things that go into that, receivers being one,” he said. “We have really good guys who catch the ball and they do a very good job of not putting me in positions to get in trouble like that.”
Bortles may have flown under the radar some at UCF, but his name has been rocketing up most draft boards lately - with some tabbing him a potential top-10 selection. The 6-foot-4 junior is ninth nationally in passing efficiency (163.3), racking up 3,280 yards and 22 touchdowns with seven interceptions.
The AAC Offensive Player of the Year had the best performance of his career with a 404-yard, four-touchdown game in a 39-36 win over Temple on Nov. 16.
But Bortles will have little chance to keep up with Petty if his line doesn’t do a better job keeping him upright. After he was sacked seven times in his first seven games, Bortles was taken down 14 times in the final five.
The Bears’ explosive offense features much more than Petty’s passing, however. They rank 11th in the country with 265.2 rushing yards per game, and Lache Seastrunk became the first player in school history with two 1,000-yard seasons. He totaled 1,060 and 11 touchdowns despite missing two games due to injury.
Petty has a wide array of targets to choose from, none more formidable than Antwan Goodley, who led the Bears with 67 receptions while ranking ninth in the country with 1,319 yards and tied for seventh with 13 TDs. He averages 19.7 yards per catch.
Senior receiver Tevin Reese is expected to play after missing the last four games with a dislocated wrist. Reese was among the national leaders with 33 catches for 824 yards and eight touchdowns before the injury, while his per-catch average of 25.0 yards tops the nation and would be a school record.
Baylor averaged 686 yards and 61.0 points in the first eight games with Reese compared to 501.5 and 37.8 in the four contests he missed.
“We’re planning on having him back, and that’s a big boost for him and us as a football team,” Briles said. “It will definitely give us a boost offensively, because he’s a guy that can scare a defense.”
Bortles does an excellent job spreading the ball around, with four receivers totaling at least 36 receptions. Rannell Hall had 53 for a team-best 773 yards, while J.J. Worton added 42 for 665 and seven scores.
Storm Johnson got a bulk of the carries for UCF, rushing for 1,015 yards and averaging 5.3 per carry. He is also adept as a receiver with 29 catches for 261 yards and three TDs.
Baylor has a chance to win three straight bowl games for the first time after combining for 116 points in wins over Washington in the Alamo Bowl and UCLA in the Holiday Bowl the past two years.
UCF has also won its last two bowl appearances after losing its first three, but is 0-5 against current teams from the Big 12.
This is the first meeting between the schools.