A near-perfect 2013 season can get even better for No. 6 Baylor with a victory over No. 15 UCF in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. Here are 10 reasons why the champions of the Big 12 will pick up their first-ever BCS bowl victory on Jan. 1.
1. Bryce Petty in rhythm: The Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year is as efficient a passer as you’ll find nationally. He averaged 10.8 yards per attempt and an FBS-best 17.4 yards per completion, and he’s capable of spreading it around to an awful lot of options. He’s had some struggles when pressure throws off his timing, but good luck keeping up with this offense when Petty gets rolling.
2. They’ll strike first: Baylor’s strongest quarter this season has consistently been its first. The Bears put up 201 points in the first quarter in 2013, including 21-plus in half of their ballgames. UCF, to its credit, has allowed just 30 total first-quarter points. But will the Knights be ready for an offense this loaded?
3. Lache Seastrunk is back: Few things get Petty more comfortable and in the zone than when defenses can’t keep up with Baylor’s run-pass versatility. Seastrunk surpassed 100 yards in six of his first seven games before being slowed by a groin injury. He’s healthy and should get plenty of totes to get the Bears attack started.
4. They’ll stop the run: It’s a big night for the Baylor linebackers, who are already missing one of their leaders in the injured Bryce Hager. The only team that knocked off the Knights, South Carolina, held Storm Johnson to 64 rushing yards on 16 carries. Baylor has a top-25 run defense nationally and has given up 200-plus yards on the ground just once.
5. Turnover margin: Petty won’t make many mistakes, and because of that the Bears had a plus-11 turnover margin in 2013. In his first season as the starter, Petty finished with a TD-to-INT ratio of 30-to-2. On defense, 11 different Bears defenders nabbed interceptions on the year. Blake Bortles better be careful, because those takeaways can come from anyone.
6. Defending the big play: You know defensive coordinator Phil Bennett has preached one obvious fix in the past few weeks: Baylor can not give up big plays. Oklahoma State knocked off the Bears thanks to 10 pass plays of 20-plus yards, and the talented Bortles will test this secondary plenty. Given how much time they’ve had to clean up those mistakes and communication errors, expect fewer busts and one-on-one beats.
7. Gone in 60 seconds: This one probably shouldn’t be as low as No. 7, because it can’t be ignored. Baylor has scored 26 touchdowns on drives of one minute or less and has found the end zone 57 times in under 2:00. A strong start from UCF can unravel very quickly if Petty and Co. can hit those big plays.
8. Reese going deep: And here’s where Petty is going with those bombs. Can the Knights’ defensive backs keep up with Tevin Reese? Art Briles says Reese is looking fresh, fast and ready to go after a broken wrist sidelined him for Baylor’s final five games. He has 25 receptions of 40-plus yards in his career and is ready to nab a few more in his final game.
9. Don’t sleep on this D-line: When Briles says Baylor finally has Big 12 depth, he especially means it along this defensive line. Ends Chris McAllister, Terrance Lloyd, Jamal Palmer and Shawn Oakman combined for 37 tackles for loss, and the Bears like to rotate in several defensive tackles. They’ll stay fresh and cause some trouble.
10. What this game means: Throw out all the matchup talk and how this game looks on paper and appreciate for a moment what this game means for Baylor. It’s the cherry on top of a dream season, a chance for a 12th victory for a program that had never won 11 in its history. An opportunity for a BCS bowl victory, a top-five finish and incalculable momentum to kickstart a 2014 year that could be very good to the Bears. It’s not the national title game, but this Fiesta Bowl means an awful lot to Baylor no matter the foe.