SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — The Baylor Bears had been the perennial patsies of the Big 12, stringing together 14 straight losing seasons following the demise of the Southwest Conference in 1996.
Art Briles changed the complexion of the program.
Capping a steady climb to respectability, the sixth-ranked Bears earned their first conference title in 33 years by beating Texas and were rewarded with a spot in the Fiesta Bowl alongside No. 15 Central Florida on New Year’s Day.
“It’s a big deal, a great accomplishment for the city of Waco, the state of Texas and the University of Baylor,” Briles said after the official announcement Sunday night. “Anytime you play in a bowl with a big B, C and S, it’s a big-time deal.”
Baylor (11-1) did not have a winning record in the Big 12 before Briles arrived in 2008, winning three or fewer games nine times.
The Bears took baby steps at first, winning four games in 2008 and 2009 before putting together their first winning record since 1995 the next season. Baylor won 10 games in 2011, eight in 2012 and became national title contenders this season with an offense that put up 51 more yards per game than any other team.
The Bears’ national-title hopes fizzled with a lopsided loss to Oklahoma State on Nov. 23, a game that also put a dent in their BCS chances.
Saturday’s games left no doubt Baylor was headed to a BCS bowl for the first time. It started with Oklahoma’s win over Oklahoma State in the Bedlam game, a victory that cost the Cowboys the Big 12 title and essentially made the Texas-Baylor game the de facto conference championship.
The Bears took care of it early, building a 17-3 lead on the way to a 30-10 win over the Longhorns to cap their first 11-win season and first conference title since winning the SWC in 1980.
After trips to the Texas, Alamo and Holiday bowls, Baylor is in the BCS and hoping to make it a regular appearance.
“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,” 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.”
Waiting for the Bears in the desert will be Central Florida (11-1).
The Knights had an 11-win season in 2010, but that led to the Liberty Bowl and not a BCS berth.
Central Florida, which beat Ball State in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl last season, got into the BCS this season by bouncing back from a loss to South Carolina with a school-record eight-game winning streak.
The Knights had the BCS nod wrapped up when Louisville beat Cincinnati on Thursday and closed the regular season with a flourish, winning the inaugural American Athletic Conference title outright by holding off SMU 17-13 in an ice storm on Saturday.
“It’s something everyone at UCF is excited about, the administration, the fan base,” Knights 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.”
Facing Baylor and its nearly point-per-minute offense will likely be a daunting task for the Knights and possibly lead to a rare mismatch in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Fiesta has been fortunate to have some marquee matchups through the years, including the wild overtime win by Boise State over Oklahoma in 2007 and Oklahoma State’s overtime win over Stanford two years ago.
Last year’s game featured a pair of teams that had been in the national-title hunt late in the regular season, but Oregon turned it into a rout by running past Kansas State.
This year’s Fiesta Bowl could end up more like the 2011 game, which featured Oklahoma and Connecticut. The Sooners predictably won in a blowout, and the Huskies had a hard time getting their fans to travel across the country for the game.
The Fiesta Bowl really had no choice in this pairing. It was locked into taking the Big 12 champion and was last in the pecking order for at-large selections after having the first pick the previous two seasons. When the Orange and Sugar Bowls passed on taking Central Florida, the Fiesta Bowl had no other choice since the AAC has an automatic berth into the BCS.
“It is a long way, but it is their first BCS bowl, just like it is for Baylor, and I think that attractor will really work in our favor,” Fiesta Bowl executive director Robert Shelton said. “This organization has done well with teams in their first BCS bowl … and I don’t think we should view that (UCF’s distance) as a negative at all.”