UCF-Baylor Preview

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.