Big 12: American Athletic Conference


GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Blake Bortles stood on the podium, holding his trophy as the offensive MVP of the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, a broad smile on his face as he soaked in the moment.

A throng of UCF fans -- a group that accounted for a small fraction of the crowd at kickoff but was all that remained as the final seconds ticked away in the fourth quarter of the Knights’ 52-42 win -- roared its approval, chanting “One more year, one more year,” in hopes of convincing Bortles to delay his ascension to the NFL.

“Not many people outside of us believed we could win,” Bortles said. “But we showed the country what UCF is all about.”

It was the perfect underdog story.

UCF was here only by virtue of the American Athletic Conference’s lame-duck status as an automatic-qualifier league, a 17-point underdog to high-flying Baylor.

Bortles was here only because so many bigger schools passed on him, failing to find the potential that UCF’s George O’Leary embraced.

But UCF won handily, scoring the first 14 points of the game, then fighting back once Baylor tied it in the third quarter. And Bortles, who has become one of college football’s hottest commodities among NFL scouts, made his mark on a national stage. He completed 20 of 31 passes for 301 yards and accounted for four touchdowns.

It was, perhaps, a coming-out party. But for UCF, it wasn’t a surprise.

“You don’t fluke your way to 52 points,” offensive lineman Jordan McCray said.

The Fiesta Bowl wasn’t simply about looking the part or pulling off the upset, McCray said. UCF wanted to dominate.

For weeks, the Knights heard the narrative that they weren’t good enough, that Baylor would cruise. They embraced the doubters, lugged an oversized chip on their shoulder from Orlando to Arizona, and changed the narrative on the field.

[+] EnlargeTroy Gray and Terrance Plummer
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsTroy Gray and Terrance Plummer celebrate after the Fiesta Bowl victory over Baylor.
“I thought it was probably a fun game to watch in the stands, but it wasn’t fun on the sideline,” O’Leary said of the back-and-forth affair. “But I thought it worked out really well.”

If Baylor was supposed to be the establishment and UCF the upstart, however, neither team embraced their roles.

UCF’s offensive line was dominant. It didn’t allow a sack, and the Knights ran for 255 yards, milking the clock down the stretch. The Knights enjoyed a nearly 10-minute edge in time of possession.

That ground game was led by Storm Johnson, the Miami transfer who couldn’t find playing time with the bigger-name Florida school. He scored each of UCF’s first two touchdowns, then disappeared after a costly fumble, then emerged again to deliver the final blow with a 40-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown.

Then there was Bortles, who outdueled Baylor’s Bryce Petty in a showcase for two of the nation’s top quarterbacks. After a sluggish first half, Bortles was 9-of-11 for 118 yards and had two touchdowns in the second.

“It’s awesome to be a part of this,” Bortles said. “We weren’t highly touted guys out of high school. We came to UCF on a mission.”

Baylor was on a mission, too, but those plans were derailed early. The Bears never led, and while the offense played its part in the highest scoring Fiesta Bowl in history, racking up 550 yards, the defense couldn’t get a stop and a series of mistakes doomed any comeback bid. Baylor had a whopping 17 penalties for 135 yards, and Petty’s interception in the end zone midway through the second quarter squandered a potentially game-changing scoring opportunity.

The Baylor locker room was somber afterward, with some players slamming fists but most retreating into the corners, headphones tuning out the buzz surrounding them.

“They weren’t doing nothing extra,” defensive lineman Terrance Lloyd said. “I don’t believe they were more physical than us. We just didn’t execute on defense.”

But that was just the point, McCray said. UCF didn’t need to do anything extra, didn’t need to sneak up on Baylor or get the lucky bounces to win. The Knights were simply the better team, even if the rest of the country hadn’t been ready to believe.

“We’ve played a lot of good football teams throughout the years, did well, proved our legitimacy,” O’Leary said. “But the win today is national exposure.”

What comes next is a mystery. Whether the win is a springboard toward sustained national prominence, whether Bortles remains for one more year, whether the respect UCF earned Wednesday carries through a long offseason -- that’s all to be decided another day.

On Wednesday, the Knights wanted to enjoy a moment no one else believed would come.

“All I’m worried about now,” Bortles said, “is getting this trophy back to Orlando and celebrating.”
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- With two of the country’s top quarterbacks helping two explosive offenses, the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl promised plenty of scoring, and it delivered.

UCF and Baylor -- both BCS newcomers -- traded punches throughout, posting 94 total points, a new Fiesta Bowl record and the second-most points scored in any BCS bowl game in history. But it was the Knights who had the most firepower, as quarterback Blake Bortles accounted for four touchdowns, leading UCF to a 52-42 win.

It was over when: Shawn Moffitt drilled a 36-yard field goal with 4:44 left to make it a three-score game. It wasn't UCF's most impressive drive, but it was the dagger. After Baylor tied the game at 28-28 with 10:18 remaining in the third, UCF responded by scoring on four straight drives. Bryce Petty and the Baylor offense were hardly silenced, but UCF matched blow for blow and its defense did just enough to survive.

Game ball goes to: Bortles. If the country didn’t know about the emerging star at UCF before Wednesday night, it does now. Bortles was exceptional down the stretch this season, climbing draft boards along the way. But the Fiesta Bowl was his coming-out party on the national stage. Bortles coughed up back-to-back interceptions in the first half, but he was never rattled. He finished the game 20-of-31 for 301 yards, rushed for another 93 yards and accounted for four total touchdowns. His second-half performance was exceptional, and while Baylor's big-play offense got all the credit entering the game, it was Bortles who was the clear star when it was over.

Stat of the game: 256. That’s the rushing yards for UCF on Wednesday, effectively doubling what Baylor has allowed, on average, this season and ensuring the Bears’ potent offense didn’t spend much time on the field. Storm Johnson was resilient, scoring twice early, coughing up a bad fumble, then returning with a series of big plays to eat up clock and wear down the Baylor D. Bortles added a bevy of big runs, too, eclipsing his previous season high on the ground with ease. In the end, the game highlighted by the two star quarterbacks came down to a whole lot of crucial yardage picked up on the ground.

Unsung hero: George O’Leary. The old-school coach has built the UCF program from nothing during his 10 years there, and the Fiesta Bowl was his crowning achievement. His team was a heavy underdog, but O’Leary had the Knights convinced they could win. His defensive coordinator left for another job last month, but O’Leary had helped build the defense all season. Baylor’s offense was considered an unstoppable machine, but with nearly a month to prepare, O’Leary had plenty of answers. In a season of remarkable coaching performances at traditionally overlooked schools, O’Leary’s may actually have been the best.

What UCF learned: It belongs. Few outsiders wanted to give the American Athletic Conference champs much credit entering the game -- the Knights were a 17-point underdog -- but that chip on their shoulder proved ample motivation. UCF dominated early then coughed up the ball on three straight plays. For most teams, that might’ve been a dagger. The Knights never wavered. The resiliency proved this was no fluke. UCF belonged on the big stage, and Bortles and Johnson are legitimate stars. Add in a young, hungry defense, and the conference affiliation means nothing. UCF is good.

What Baylor learned: Offense sells tickets, but defense wins games. It’s an old cliche, but it was certainly fitting for Baylor on Wednesday. The Bears simply had no answer for UCF’s offense. Its only stops came when the Knights shot themselves in the foot. So while Baylor exudes big-play potential -- and the Bears made plenty of big plays against UCF -- none of it matters when it faces a team that can trade punches and come up with a few stops of its own. Art Briles’ crew knows how to score. But before Baylor can be a legitimate national contender, it’s going to have to do a better job of keeping the other guys from scoring, too.

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl roundtable

January, 1, 2014
Jan 1
9:00
AM ET
David Hale, who is in Arizona covering the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, and Big 12 reporter Jake Trotter break down the storylines in Wednesday night's matchup featuring Baylor and Central Florida:

Who is the one Baylor offensive player Central Florida must stop first?

[+] EnlargeLache Seastrunk
Manny Flores/Icon SMIIf Lache Seastrunk gets going for Baylor, it could be curtains early for UCF in the Fiesta Bowl.
David Hale: Just one? It seems like the list could actually be pretty long. Bryce Petty obviously sets the tone, and UCF can’t let Baylor’s quick-strike, big-play passing game get going early if it wants to stay competitive. The Knights would love to take away Antwan Goodley, but of course, Petty has other weapons in the passing game, too. And then you get to the ground attack, which should feature a healthy Lache Seastrunk, looking for his first 100-yard game since October. Really, Seastrunk might be the key because a one-dimensional Baylor offense is at least manageable. If the Bears are moving the ball through the air and on the ground -- look out.

Jake Trotter: People outside Big 12 country often incorrectly peg Baylor as a finesse, passing team. Sure, Baylor can pass. But Art Briles’ offense is predicated on establishing the run first. After all, the Bears lead the Big 12 with 265 rushing yards per game. So for Central Florida to have any shot, the Knights have to corral Seastrunk early. If Baylor sets a quick tone on the ground with Seastrunk, UCF is probably toast.

Central Florida has scored more than 40 points just twice all season. Do the Knights stand any chance if this game becomes a shootout?

Hale: Well, the numbers certainly don’t seem encouraging for UCF. Baylor is averaging 53.3 points per game this year. UCF topped that total just once -- against lowly UConn. Still, Blake Bortles is no small-school phenomenon, and he’s more than capable of chucking the ball downfield for some big plays. While Petty leads all AQ-conference QBs in completions and TDs on throws of 25 yards or more (courtesy ESPN Stats & Info), Bortles actually completes a far higher percentage of his deep balls (53.3 percent on throws of 25 yards or more, third-best among AQ QBs). Plus, UCF has a flair for the dramatic, with six second-half comebacks this season. Still, keeping pace in a shootout is hardly the Knights’ preference, and I’d wager they’d prefer to keep this game from turning into a track meet.

Trotter: Baylor would love nothing more than for this game to become a track meet. UCF, while possessing a good offense with a great QB in Bortles, lacks the requisite offensive firepower to outscore the Bears. The Knights would be wise to follow a similar game plan that TCU executed against Baylor. Limit the Bears' big passing plays downfield, buck up on third down defensively and get the chains moving offensively to keep the Baylor offense out of sync and off the field. If the Knights can do that, they can give Bortles a fighting chance to win the game for them in the fourth quarter.

Who is the player to watch in this game?

Hale: The quarterbacks obviously take center stage, and for good reason. Bortles and Petty have been exceptional all season. But if this game is going to be competitive, the key player might be UCF running back Storm Johnson. He’s a serious talent -- a top recruit out of high school who began his career at Miami before transferring to UCF -- and has 100-yard games against Penn State and Louisville this season. If Johnson can run the ball effectively for the Knights, milking the clock and keeping Baylor’s offense off the field in the process, the game could be closer than most predict. If he struggles and it turns into a shootout between the two QBs, Baylor certainly appears to be in the driver’s seat.

Trotter: After wideout Tevin Reese suffered a dislocated wrist in early November, the Baylor offense definitely lost some pop. The Bears, who averaged more than 60 points per game for most of the season, scored just 17, 41 (thanks to two defensive touchdowns) and 30 in their final three games. Reese’s downfield speed is what stretched defenses vertically to open up the running game. It also left Goodley in single coverage on the opposite side of the field. Reese has been cleared for this game. And if he’s close enough to 100 percent, the Baylor attack could return to its early season form. That would not be good for UCF.

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
10:55
PM ET

UCF Knights (11-1) vs. Baylor Bears (11-1)

Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m. ET, Glendale, Ariz. (ESPN)


UCF KNIGHTS BREAKDOWN
UCF entered its first year in the American Athletic Conference with high hopes. But nobody outside the program anticipated the Knights would win the conference championship. Not with preseason No. 9 Louisville standing in the way.

[+] EnlargeBlake Bortles
AP Photo/John RaouxBlake Bortles has led UCF to the first BCS bowl in program history.
But the Knights served notice early on they were a team that should be taken seriously. They went on the road and beat Penn State in Week 3. Then they gave South Carolina everything they had in a 28-25 loss that came down to the very end. It became obvious their game at Louisville in October would have an impact on the conference title race.

UCF went on the road and never flinched, not after falling behind 28-7. Blake Bortles calmly led a 38-35 comeback win, throwing the winning touchdown pass to Jeff Godfrey with 23 seconds remaining. The win paved the way for UCF to earn the American title outright and its first BCS bid as new league members. It also served as the biggest win in school history given where the Knights stand today.

Bortles keyed the season. The junior from Orlando threw for 3,280 yards this season, with 22 touchdowns to seven interceptions. He has risen up through NFL draft boards with his performance and now faces a decision about whether to return to UCF. But he wasn’t alone. The Knights have one of the deepest receiving groups in the league, as three players have at least 600 yards. Storm Johnson ran for 1,000 yards, and the Knights ranked in the top 20 in the nation in total defense, scoring defense, pass efficiency defense and rushing defense.

But the season was not without its share of drama. Five times UCF needed to come from behind in the second half to win conference games. That includes victories over Memphis, Temple and USF -- three of the worst teams in the league.

The Temple victory was perhaps the closest UCF came to seeing its BCS dreams end. The Knights trailed 36-29 with 2 minutes to go, but J.J. Worton made an acrobatic, one-handed touchdown catch to tie the game, and Bortles got the Knights into field goal range with 2 seconds left to lead the win.

History has been made. As the American moves forward into a new era, UCF gives the league plenty to build on. -- Andrea Adelson

vs.

BAYLOR BEARS BREAKDOWN
Dreams came true in Waco, Texas, this season, as Baylor rose from the conference cellar to Big 12 champions under the direction of Art Briles. The Bears could win 12 games for first time in program history with a Tostitos Fiesta Bowl win over UCF.

[+] EnlargeBryce Petty
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesBryce Petty's Bears soared to new heights this season ... and they're not done.
Yet, there was a time when it looked like the Bears might not even make a BCS bowl after getting drilled by Oklahoma State 49-17 in late November. But BU responded to win its final two games over TCU and Texas to finish 11-1 while securing the Fiesta Bowl berth and outright Big 12 title.

Quarterback Bryce Petty was easily the best signal-caller in the conference and played a major role in the Bears’ FBS-leading 53.3 points per game and 624.5 yards per game this season. He will lead a passing attack that could be a handful for a UCF defense that allowed 229.83 passing yards per game, tied for 61st in the FBS.

Even though Briles’ squad featured the nation’s most productive offense, the real foundation of Baylor’s first Big 12 championship was its defense. The Bears defense ranked among the top three in the Big 12 in most categories and led the conference in yards per play allowed (4.53) and yards per rush allowed (3.26).

Safety Ahmad Dixon brought a physical tone and unyielding confidence to the defense, while its front seven, led by defensive end Chris McAllister, was underrated throughout the fall.

After its strong finish to the 2012 season, Baylor was viewed as an Big 12 sleeper heading into the 2013 season. Turns out the Bears were the Big 12’s sleeper team. And much more. -- Brandon Chatmon
The debate over top individual classes is a fierce and long standing one in the world of recruiting, but a look at how conferences stack up against each other on the recruiting trail can offer great insight as well. The SEC has been dominant on the field and on the recruiting trail -- it's nabbed the top class four out of the last five years. For 2014, the SEC is making a push to claim the top class again with multiple teams ranked in the top 10 of ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings. The SEC is not the only conference enjoying recruiting success though, as several others are showing similar depth.

Spreecast: Conference perceptions

August, 13, 2013
8/13/13
11:30
AM ET
ESPN.com bloggers Heather Dinich, Adam Rittenberg, Edward Aschoff and Ted Miller discuss the perceptions of the major conferences.

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