At the very least, the players from Baylor and UCF understand one another. All know what it's like to choose to play for a program that -- at best -- was widely considered the fourth or fifth choice in a football-mad state. After this season, all have realized that winning can change the pecking order. "That's what helps with the mutual respect we have for each other," Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty said. "I know I respect them. It's always interesting, I guess, to know that you're playing a team that's kind of came from the same background as you have. You can tell they came from hard work. They've been backed up in a corner. It's nice to see us both rising at the same time."
Baylor, long the doormat in the Big 12, capped a five-season rise under coach Art Briles with its first conference title since the league formed in 1996 and its first outright conference crown since its Southwest Conference title in '80. UCF, long blocked from the Big East by neighbor South Florida, finally joined the Zombie Big East -- also known as the American Athletic Conference -- and won the conference title in its debut season in the league.
UCF quarterback Blake Bortles and Baylor signal-caller Petty are representative of almost everyone on both respective rosters. While some of the younger players were lured by recent success, the veterans came because they were passed over by more prestigious programs. Bortles, who grew up in Oviedo, Fla., had the frame (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) and the arm to play at this level and beyond, but only UCF, Colorado State and Western Kentucky wanted him as a quarterback. UCF was located 5.6 miles from Bortles' high school, so that's where he went. Petty, along with Clemson's Tajh Boyd, was a member of the Lane Kiffin-Didn't-Want-Us-At-Tennessee club. From Midlothian, Texas, Petty committed to Phillip Fulmer, but when Fulmer was fired and Kiffin took over, Kiffin informed Petty he wasn't needed. With few options at that point, Petty had to accept a grayshirt (delayed enrollment) at Baylor. Now Kiffin is unemployed, and Petty is leading the Big 12 champ into the Fiesta Bowl.
Briles and UCF coach George O'Leary have different styles -- Briles is mostly sunshine, O'Leary mostly brimstone -- but they have achieved similar results. Each has taken a program considered in the second tier in its own state and placed it on a grand stage. The question is who will take the next step by winning this game?
"As far as getting overlooked in your state, the way you keep from getting overlooked is to beat the competition and win," Briles said. "He's done that. Fortunately we've, to a certain degree, done some of that over the last two or three years. I mean, that's how you force equality. Equality is not given. It's something you've got to earn. His players have earned it, so have we, to now we're more on an equal scale to where we might have been five years ago."
Points of interest
1. Two-minute (or less) drill: The Bears have scored 57 of their 76 offensive touchdowns on drives of fewer than 120 seconds. They've scored 26 on drives of less than a minute. A couple of these possessions can turn a game ugly quickly. The way to prevent them from happening is to contain the Bears on first down and force them into obvious passing situations. Petty is least effective with a rusher in his face, but when the Bears have a favorable down and distance, they spread the field so wide that defenses have to guess whether to stop the run or the pass. Guessing incorrectly leads to touchdowns. If the Knights can take away the guesswork, they may be able pressure Petty and slow Baylor's lightning-bolt offense.
2. Playing it close: One of the main criticisms of the Knights was their habit of playing to the level of their competition. That was great in a three-point win at Louisville on Oct. 18, not so much in three-point escapes against lowly Temple and USF. UCF went 7-1 in games decided by seven points or less, so the Knights know how to win close games. Whether the Bears do is another question. Baylor had only one game decided by fewer than 10 points -- a 41-38 win at TCU on Nov. 30.
3. Coaching carousels: Briles' name will continue to be mentioned in connection with the Texas job until the Longhorns make a hire. (That hire still might very well be Briles.) But the Bears have been hearing those whispers for months, and they've had no trouble blocking them out. UCF has a very real coaching change to which it must adapt. On Dec. 20, Knights defensive coordinator Jim Fleming took the head coaching job at Rhode Island. He won't coach in the Fiesta Bowl. O'Leary has hired Paul Ferraro to replace Fleming going forward, but linebackers coach Tyson Summers will call the defense against Baylor.
Can UCF's defense stop Baylor's offense with an interim coordinator? Congratulations, Tyson. You get to call the defense in a BCS bowl. The bad news? You're facing the team that led the nation in total offense (624.5 yards) and scoring (53.5 points). Fortunately, your head coach seems to have figured out the trick to stopping Baylor's unique scheme, which forces defenses to guard the length and width of the field. "Art is putting those wide receivers out too far," O'Leary joked this week. "I told him [on Sunday] to put them in a little more, help us out. ... If Art could just move those receivers in a little bit, it would really help. If you see Art, ask him if he could do me a favor, move them in a little bit. We'll be all set."
Baylor cornerback K.J. Morton: Morton had two interceptions against Texas in the regular-season finale, and he has made receivers miserable all year. If he can cause Bortles to throw a pick or two and the Baylor offense makes UCF pay for those mistakes, the Bears should win the game.
7: The number of scholarship seniors on UCF's team. That's the second fewest nationally, behind only South Carolina's five.
UCF's defense contained Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, so the Knights know how to play against elite competition. Yet that same group was also shredded in the second half by South Carolina tailback Mike Davis, which should excite Baylor backs Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin. The return of receiver Tevin Reese, who has been out since the Oklahoma game with a wrist injury, should also boost Baylor's offense. UCF can control the clock if its offensive line can open some holes for tailback Storm Johnson. The Bears have been susceptible to runs up the middle, and Johnson (5.3 yards a carry) is the type of back who can take advantage of that.
Baylor 42, UCF 28