December 23, 2014

Bryce Petty and Connor Cook aren't fraternity brothers, but their cavalier references to each other show the bond the two forged while working out together over the summer.

They also happen to quarterback two of the most productive offenses in the country for programs that failed to fulfill aspirations of reaching the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Neither is bitter about having to settle for a date in the Cotton Bowl, though, as Petty's fourth-ranked Baylor squad faces Cook and No. 7 Michigan State on New Year's Day at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

The Bears (11-1) felt they had the resume necessary to finish among the top four in the CFP rankings, having beaten three ranked opponents and winning a share of the Big 12 title with a 38-27 victory over then-No. 9 Kansas State on Dec. 6.

Coach Art Briles was publicly critical of conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who declared a co-championship despite Baylor's win over TCU that could have been considered the tiebreaker.

Briles has calmed down since his team was slotted No. 5 in the final CFP rankings, refusing to show any disappointment.

"I think everything worked out for us the way it's supposed to. And I have peace in that," said Briles, whose team lost to Central Florida in last season's Fiesta Bowl. "We're supposed to be where we're supposed to be and we're facing a great team and a very well-coached team. It is a great challenge for us."

Petty is taking the high road as well after finishing second in the Big 12 in passing yards (3,305) and touchdowns (26) while throwing only six interceptions.

The senior helped Baylor lead the nation in offense (581.3 yards per game) and scoring (48.8 points) while ranking second with 76 touchdowns from scrimmage. Petty and Cook worked out together during the offseason under quarterback guru George Whitfield, and Petty is excited go head-to-head with his friend despite the Bears missing out on the playoff.

"He's my dude. I love him a lot," Petty said. "As soon as we found out, we had a couple of texts back and forth. He's a great quarterback. They run a great system up there. It'll be fun to see him across the sidelines and it will be great to compete. May the best man win."

Cook's text to Petty after the matchup became official read, "You ready, bro?," indicating he feels the same way.

"Great dude," Cook said of Petty during a television appearance shortly after the announcement. "Very humble, hard-working guy. Funny, loves to crack jokes."

Cook was all business during the season, though. The junior led the Big Ten with 2,900 passing yards and finished second with 22 touchdowns to go with six picks.

The Spartans (10-2) tied for fifth nationally with 64 touchdowns from scrimmage, were seventh with 43.1 points per game and 13th in total offense at 496.5 yards per contest. However, losses to a pair of CFP qualifiers - No. 2 Oregon on Sept. 6 and No. 4 Ohio State on Nov. 8 - kept them out of the playoff.

Cook has heard the rumors that he could be a high pick in the NFL draft should he declare early, but he's leaning toward returning for his final season.

''The main goal is obviously to come back,'' Cook said. ''Talked among (family), talked among my friends, with the coaches. I have unfinished business that I want to do, that I want to accomplish next year.''

Coach Mark Dantonio has guided the Spartans to at least 10 victories in four of the last five seasons, including last year's 13-1 mark that concluded with a win over Stanford in the program's first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1987 season.

The expectations were some of the loftiest in Michigan State history heading into 2014, leaving some disappointed by its No. 8 finish in the CFP rankings.

"People expect more. That is their right. But it gives us an edge," Dantonio said. "It gives us a little bit of a chip on our shoulder as we go, and we use whatever we need to use. We have an opportunity to play against a good football team, and possibly winning that game puts us right on the fringe of being in the playoffs. So we use that to move forward.

"People keep saying that's a major disappointment. I mean, move on."

Dantonio is focused on containing Baylor's high-powered attack with a defense led by All-American defensive back Kurtis Drummond and standout lineman Shilique Calhoun. Coordinator Pat Narduzzi will run the defense one final time even though he's been hired to take over as head coach at Pittsburgh.

Narduzzi helped the Spartans finish seventh in the nation in total defense, allowing 293.5 yards per game.

"Defending Baylor really is about getting lined up and playing fast," Dantonio said. "That's a tremendous challenge in itself, because they are probably the fastest, or what is on record as the fastest, team between snaps in the country."

Michigan State has been more methodical in its offensive approach, leading the nation in average time of possession at 35 minutes, 14 seconds. Jeremy Langford rushed for at least 100 yards in his final nine games and averaged 5.5 per carry on the season.

Baylor is ninth in the FBS against the run at 107.7 yards allowed per game and is giving up 2.9 per attempt.

The Spartans beat the Bears 28-10 in 1968 in the schools' only meeting.

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