NCF Nation: UCF Knights

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- James Franklin has experienced his share of headaches with all the logistics of holding a season opener 3,000 miles away in Ireland. But there's one new wrinkle he probably hadn't counted on.

The potential eruption of an Icelandic volcano. Seriously.

The staff probably just wanted to watch some film on UCF quarterback Pete DiNovo or wideout Rannell Hall. Now, it's keeping an eye on Bardarbunga, the name of the volcano that kind of looks like it belongs to a defensive tackle. A real eruption could lead to some potential travel issues.

"We're aware of that, and we're monitoring that situation," said Michael Hazel, Penn State's director of football operations. "That's kind of out of our area of expertise."

Sadly, this isn't the synopsis to a terrible B-movie. Iceland evacuated the largely uninhabited area around the volcano, and its meteorological office raised its threat level to orange --which is the second-highest alert.

But don't go trading in those Croke Park tickets just yet. It's still too early to say whether the volcano will really erupt. And, even then, there's no telling whether the ash will create enough of a hazard to impact flights like an eruption did in 2010.

It could wind up as absolutely nothing. But the fact we even have to discuss a volcano -- and that Penn State is monitoring it -- sure is surreal. Normally, we just have to stick to following wind, rain and snow. Maybe we should start adding volcanoes and earthquakes to our Big Ten game-day weather reports?
Setting up the spring in the American Athletic Conference:

CINCINNATI

Spring start: Feb. 27

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
  • Gunner Kiel: Attention has followed the former high school sensation for years, from Indiana to LSU to Notre Dame and now to Cincinnati. He enters his redshirt sophomore season having never taken a college snap. With sixth-year senior Munchie Legaux still recovering from last year's leg injury, the show is Kiel's to run this spring.
  • Hank Hughes' defense: The former Cincinnati defensive coordinator returns after coaching last season at UConn. There, he orchestrated a rushing defense that finished 23rd nationally despite a 3-9 campaign. He will keep a 4-3 base but loses three all-conference performers from last season: Greg Blair, Jordan Stepp and Deven Drane.
  • RDA IV: Ralph David Abernathy IV has been a playmaker out of the backfield for the Bearcats in recent seasons, but he has moved to the slot this spring. He will probably still line up in the backfield at times, but seeing what the 5-foot-7, 161-pounder can do in space is definitely worth keeping an eye on, especially if the man throwing him the ball, Kiel, lives up to the hype at quarterback.
EAST CAROLINA

Spring start: March 21

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Carden's ascent: Shane Carden could be a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate in 2014. He enters his fifth year in the program coming off a season in which he completed better than 70 percent of his throws for more than 4,000 yards, totaling 43 combined touchdowns between passing and rushing. Similar numbers in a new league will get him much more attention.
  • Replacing Jeremy Grove: The redshirt senior linebacker recently announced that he was hanging up his cleats after several shoulder injuries. The former freshman All-American led the Pirates in tackles for two years running before being limited last season. Expect bigger roles for Zeek Bigger and Brandon Williams, who together last season totaled 10 tackles for loss and three forced turnovers.
  • Filling the backfield void: East Carolina says goodbye to Vintavious Cooper, who turned in consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. While signee Anthony Scott looks like a player who could contribute right away upon his summer arrival, the burden for now falls on the shoulders of three backs who totaled 548 yards on the ground last season.
HOUSTON

Spring start: March 3

Spring game: April 11

What to watch:
  • O'Korn looks to take next step: John O'Korn started 11 games last season at quarterback, proving to be efficient through the air and on the ground while taking the Cougars to a bowl game in their first season in the American. Now he's running an offense that, including him, returns eight starters. He set the bar pretty high as league rookie of the year, but incremental improvement could mean big things for Houston in 2014.
  • CB battles: Zach McMillian and Thomas Bates have graduated, taking their combined 10 forced turnovers from last season out the door with them. Two transfers could find themselves in the mix, as Lee Hightower (Boise State) and Tyler White (Utah) look to battle for starting spots on a defense seeking help in the secondary.
  • Trevon Randle: The former LSU linebacker and three-star recruit now finds himself in more of a pass-rushing role after sitting out the 2013 season for undisclosed reasons. The move is interesting for the 6-foot-2, 218-pound Randle, but the talent is certainly there for Randle to become a playmaker, wherever he ends up playing on the field.
MEMPHIS

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 11

What to watch:
  • Paxton Lynch's growth: Lynch made a name for himself by unseating Jacob Karam as the starting quarterback during fall camp last season. He followed with an up-and-down season for the 3-9 Tigers, showing flashes of playmaking ability and a penchant for turning it over. He is now the hunted, not the hunter, with redshirt freshman Brayden Scott now in the role Lynch played last season in hoping to steal the No. 1 job.
  • Hayes' return: The biggest coup of the offseason was the NCAA granting Brandon Hayes a sixth year of eligibility. The former walk-on was the team's MVP and leading rusher last season, and he will help take plenty of pressure off of whoever emerges as the starting quarterback.
  • Defensive growth: The Tigers were ranked 39th last season in total defense, and eight starters return. The unit gave the offense chances to win last season against league heavyweights Louisville and UCF before falling by a 24-17 margin in both games, and the Tigers welcome two new coaches in Ricky Hunley (line) and Ryan Walters (corners).
SMU

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 5 (no spring game)

What to watch:
  • Replacing Gilbert: SMU opened practice Tuesday with five men in the mix to become its starting quarterback, with Neal Burcham carrying the front-runner status after starting the final two games last season in place of Garrett Gilbert (knee), who totaled nearly 3,800 yards rushing and passing last season, accounting for 27 scores.
  • Receiver depth: The Mustangs are relatively thin at the position following the graduation of two of its top three receivers from last season, as Jeremy Johnson and Keenan Holman each tallied more than 1,000 yards in 2013. Deion Sanders Jr., meanwhile, will miss spring practice because of a shoulder injury.
  • The next Acker: Cornerback Kenneth Acker starred with the Mustangs, earning second-team all-conference distinction after finishing second in the league in passes defended (16) and tallying a team-best three interceptions on the season. Jay Scott, who forced three turnovers himself last season, is also gone. Talented safety Shakiel Randolph could see his role increased after showing plenty of promise in his first two seasons, including a 37-tackle campaign last season.
TEMPLE

Spring start: March 24

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Receiver help: Temple will open spring practice without Robbie Anderson, the Owls' top receiver from last season, who is no longer with the team. Both Anderson and the graduated Ryan Alderman combined for more than 1,300 yards last season, so the pressure will be on Jalen Fitzpatrick and John Christopher to carry bigger workloads going into 2014. They'll have a familiar Philly face coaching them, with former QB Adam DiMichele now the Owls' receivers coach.
  • Aerial attack: One silver lining from a 2-10 campaign last season? P.J. Walker, who rebounded after losing the preseason quarterback battle and ended up starting the season's final seven games, threw for 2,084 yards. He was part of a group that passed for the most yards ever (2,996) by a Temple team, a promising sign moving forward for the second-year player (and his second-year coach, Matt Rhule).
  • Tyler Matakevich: The kid just keeps on getting better, as the linebacker followed up his impressive rookie season by tallying 137 total tackles — including 11.5 for loss — picking off one pass, recovering two fumbles and forcing three more. He wears a single-digit jersey, No. 8, to signify his toughness, and he is a great central piece for the defense to build around. Temple was ranked 109th overall in yards allowed last season.
TULANE

Spring start: Feb. 7

Spring game: Feb. 26 (no spring game)

What to watch:
  • Injuries: The situation is a little different here with Tulane, which is already finished with its spring season, allowing us to instead look back. And the Green Wave even ended up finishing earlier than anticipated, as coach Curtis Johnson ended it after Feb. 26, cutting the final two practices because of injuries. Among the walking wounded throughout last month: Linebacker Nico Marley, running back Sherman Badie and linebackers Sergio Medina and Edward Williams, who both missed all of spring because of pre-existing injuries.
  • QB battle: Tanner Lee is seemingly the front-runner to start in 2014 after redshirting as a freshman this past fall. A local prospect from Jesuit High, he passed for nearly 4,000 yards in high school while tallying 39 touchdowns and just nine interceptions, and he received a much heavier workload this spring after the Green Wave struggled with consistency in the passing game in 2013.
  • Filling the backfield void: Orleans Darkwa is gone after totaling 920 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. Tulane might be turning to another redshirt freshman, with Badie getting plenty of attention this spring before suffering a concussion down the stretch. Senior Rob Kelley (420 yards in 2013) and three other backfield contributors from last season return to give this unit a bit of depth.
TULSA

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Defensive stability: No one in the program is happy following a 3-9 campaign last fall, but the Golden Hurricane bring back plenty of experience from last season as they move into Year 1 in the American. Ten starters are back on defense. Despite finishing just 102nd in yards allowed last season, that gives the program a nice foundation as it welcomes in a tougher slate of opponents.
  • Josh Blankenship and the offense: Head coach Bill Blankenship's newest hire is his son, Josh, who was brought in to coach quarterbacks and rework an offense that finished 100th overall last season. The former Muskogee High head coach is part of a restructured offensive staff after coordinator Greg Peterson left the program and Bill Blankenship gave up coaching the QBs.
  • Backfield holes: Trey Watts and Ja'Terian Douglas are gone after totaling nearly 1,700 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Reinforcements are on the way in three running back signees from this recruiting cycle, with one of them, juco transfer Tavarreon Dickerson, enrolling early and looking to make an impact after averaging 8.5 yards per carry last season at Trinity Valley.
UCF

Spring start: March 12

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Like after Bortles: Blake Bortles will be examined and re-examined in the public eye daily before the NFL draft, and his replacement back at UCF has some major shoes to fill. His backup last season, Justin Holman, is the most experienced of a three-man group that includes early enrollee and former SMU commit Tyler Harris.
  • Replacing Storm Johnson: Johnson is gone after rushing for 1,139 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, and Will Stanback will likely have to prepare for a much bigger role in his sophomore year after getting 105 carries in his rookie campaign of 2013. There are plenty of other bodies back there, but none managed the workload Stanback carried last season as a freshman.
  • Offensive line depth: Brent Key is now the assistant head coach of the offense, and he will serve as offensive line coach as well. The spring will be very important in helping to sort out the chaos up front, and one player worth keeping an eye will be Chester Brown, who saw limited action last season after switching from the defensive line in fall camp.
UCONN

Spring start: March 10

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • New leader: Bob Diaco had an introductory news conference like few others. The former Notre Dame defensive coordinator is filled with energy, and he certainly brings a new approach atop the program following the Paul Pasqualoni and Randy Edsall eras. He already has made some cosmetic changes in the training facility, but bringing immediate change on the field is a bigger challenge in 2014.
  • Casey Cochran. The Huskies won their final three games last season, putting up 28 or more points in all three contests. Cochran passed for a school-record 461 yards in the finale, and seeing how he and the rest of the quarterbacks develop under this new staff will go a long way toward determining what UConn can do next season.
  • Defensive replenishments. For all of their struggles in recent years, the Huskies haven't lacked for talent or effort on the defensive side of the ball. That shouldn't change under Diaco, who won the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach as Notre Dame's defensive coordinator in 2012. But replacing standouts such as Shamar Stephen and Yawin Smallwood won't be easy.
USF

Spring start: Feb. 26

Spring game: March 29

What to watch:
  • QB battle: Penn State transfer Steven Bench was named the starter at midseason in 2013, but he found himself behind freshman Mike White after an injury. Both quarterbacks turned the ball over way too much last season, and increased production from that position is crucial if Willie Taggart wants to get this program turned around in his second season as head coach.
  • Running backs: The battle to replace Marcus Shaw is on after his 765-yard season in 2013. Mike Pierre, Willie Davis and Darius Tice are the men being counted on now in the backfield, but no player from that trio carried the ball more than 41 times or topped 141 rushing yards for the season.
  • Jamie Byrd: Byrd enrolled at USF this January following a stint at Iowa Western Community College, and he has two years of eligibility remaining. He had 53 tackles, two interceptions, seven passes defended and a fumble recovery last season, and the hard-hitting speedster could make an early impact with the Bulls in the secondary.

American spring preview

March, 5, 2014
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Another year, another set of fresh faces.

And, of course, new challenges, as well.

This is life now in the American Athletic Conference, which won’t complete its makeover complete until next season, when Navy joins the fold as a football-only member.

For now, it watches two others walk out the door while welcoming three new programs into the fold.

Goodbye, Louisville and Rutgers. Hello, East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa.

And, if last season is any indication, the newcomers may not be second-class citizens upon their arrivals.

"There's enough talent around the country that creates a little bit more parity than people are talking about now," said East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeil. "I know they're trying to talk about these conferences and those conferences. Well, I've been to those conferences, and there's good football players in each league. And I feel we're ready to compete with anyone. I'm not afraid to say that, and I know other coaches in the league are not, either."

That became evident through UCF's historic campaign in the remodeled league's debut last season, with the Knights going 12-1 and topping Baylor in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. These, of course, were the same Knights that lost twice to Tulsa a year earlier, and the Golden Hurricane now enter the American coming off a disappointing 3-9 season last fall.

That is all encouraging from one perspective. But the optimist's approach shows a similar surprising run could be on the horizon in 2014.

"East Carolina is going to have a huge advantage in our conference. I think they're going to be the next guys, to be honest, similar to UCF," said conference commissioner Mike Aresco.

"Everything's in place: They've got a Heisman candidate, they've got just some tremendous players and I think they're going to make a mark quickly because they've never had this kind of TV exposure. They've got a 50,000-seat stadium and they fill it up all the time. Their quarterback Shane Carden I think will be a Heisman candidate. I think they're the kind of team that will really benefit."

Among the old guard, UConn made a major move by hiring prized Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco to head its program. Cincinnati has another year under Tommy Tuberville and could possibly start the most talked about quarterback to never take a college snap in Gunner Kiel.

The American begins life in the post-BCS era with no automatic entry to access bowls. It is a member of a group of five conferences from within which the top overall team will be granted a berth at the adults' postseason table.

It's not exactly ideal, but after enduring a year of turmoil and coming out on the other end with a BCS win and several probable high draft picks to its name, the league enters its next phase with a much more positive outlook.

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.

Join us for Fiesta Bowl Live (8:30 ET)

January, 1, 2014
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In the final year of the BCS, a pair of BCS newcomers -- Baylor and UCF -- square off in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.

As we close out the New Year’s Day slate of games, join reporters David Hale, Andrea Adelson, Jake Trotter and Max Olson as the Bears and Knights square off. Post your comments and questions and we’ll include as many of them as possible.

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl preview

January, 1, 2014
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Baylor and Central Florida both opened the season outside the top 25, but that doesn’t mean much now. Both programs earned their first BCS bowl bids, and while Wednesday night's Tostitos Fiesta Bowl (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) matchup may not have the same box-office cachet as some of the other big bowls, it’s an intriguing matchup. Here’s why:

Who to watch: There might not be a better quarterback matchup in any bowl game this season. Baylor’s Bryce Petty is a big-play artist. He ranks second nationally in yards per attempt (10.8) and first in passing plays of 25 yards or more (46), and he leads all AQ-conference quarterbacks in both completions (25) and touchdowns (13) on throws of 25-plus yards. On the flip side, UCF’s Blake Bortles has rocketed up draft boards and could be a top-10 selection if he decides to enter the NFL draft. In his last seven games, he’s completing 70 percent of his passes, averaging 9.3 yards per attempt, and he has thrown 13 TDs to just four interceptions. But while the quarterbacks promise to steal the show, the running backs aren’t bad either. Both Baylor's Lache Seastrunk and UCF's Storm Johnson rushed for more than 1,000 yards this season.

What to watch: Two high-octane offenses mean the pressure will be on the defensive units to stem the tide. For Baylor, the task of slowing Johnson will be front and center. UCF figures to want to run the ball, chew up clock and keep Petty and the Bears’ offense off the field. Baylor led the Big 12, allowing just 3.26 yards per rush this season. Meanwhile, UCF will need to find any way to slow the Bears’ big-play, quick-strike attack. Baylor’s 76 touchdown drives this season averaged just 1:31 in possession time, with 57 of them lasting less than two minutes. UCF’s defense, led by linebacker Terrance Plummer (96 tackles), needs to make Baylor work for its points.

Why to watch: For a sizable portion of the country, this is the last chance to get acquainted with two of the best teams fans likely haven’t seen often this year. UCF opened the season in Louisville’s shadow in the AAC, but Bortles could be playing on Sundays next year. Meanwhile, Art Briles has created one of the most exciting offenses in college football at Baylor. It might be the first BCS bids for both schools, but there is no shortage of star power and explosiveness on their rosters.

Prediction: Baylor 35, UCF 27. The Knights are a more talented team than they’ve gotten credit for, but in the end, Baylor’s offense has too much firepower.

No shortcuts to BCS success at UCF

January, 1, 2014
Jan 1
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George O'Leary has brought No. 15 UCF to the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, arriving at the BCS party just as the band is breaking down and the barkeep is cleaning up. But O'Leary's career has been a case study in living one step out of the spotlight.

"You know what's funny about the whole thing?" O'Leary said. "We've won 10 games three out of the last four years. And nobody knew it. All of a sudden, we won 11, and because of the BCS, everybody sees it."

As the sweet old ladies in his New York City parish used to say, the map of Ireland is on O'Leary's face. The 67-year-old coach has that Big Apple mixture of romanticism wrapped in a cynical crust. His favorite tool is the needle. He has a million bits of Irish wisdom, aphorisms and toasts, nearly all of which his players hear over the span of their careers.

Put team before self. Don't ask for your name on your jersey. "It has your number on it," O'Leary tells them. "If you're any good, they'll know who you are."

Don't take shortcuts. "Don't learn the tricks of the trade," he has said. "Learn the trade."

What's funny about the whole thing is that a dozen years after he fell off the top of the mountain -- because he took a shortcut -- O'Leary has reached the top again.

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UCF and Baylor face off in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl tonight, with the Bears the heavy favorite. But that doesn’t mean UCF has no shot to win its first BCS game in school history. Here are 10 reasons the Knights have a shot in Arizona tonight.

1. In a game defined by quarterbacks, UCF has an edge.

[+] EnlargeBlake Bortles
AP Photo/Reinhold MatayWhile UCF might be a big underdog against Baylor, the Knights arguably have a better quarterback in Blake Bortles.
Bryce Petty is exceptional, but it’s UCF’s Blake Bortles who might be the country’s hottest quarterback. In his last seven games of the season, he completed 70 percent of his throws, accounted for 17 touchdowns and threw just four INTs. He’s a rising star, and he’s more than capable of putting on a show on the big stage.

2. UCF can win time of possession.

The best way to slow Baylor’s offense might be keeping it off the field. UCF can do that with a stellar running game, led by former top recruit Storm Johnson. The Miami transfer had nearly 1,300 yards from scrimmage and 14 touchdowns this season.

3. Nobody believes in the Knights.

It’s been nearly a month since the season ended for Baylor and UCF, which means plenty of time for both teams to read the press clippings. Baylor is the heavy favorite, and everyone is picking the Bears to win. UCF is the decided underdog, and that lack of respect figures to add some extra fuel to the fire.

4. The Knights are better than you think.

UCF gets dinged because of its conference affiliation, but that doesn’t mean the Knights don’t have talent. They handed Louisville its only loss of the season and came up just three points shy of toppling No. 9 South Carolina. They also went into Happy Valley and upended Penn State, so even a hostile environment doesn’t intimidate the Knights.

5. Fundamentals matter.

Baylor is explosive, and its combination of speed at both running back and receiver allows the Bears to stretch the field and clear space. That puts an emphasis on tackling, and that’s where UCF could excel. The Knights have a fundamentally sound D, and Petty said the film shows a unit more than capable of running sideline to sideline.

6. O’Leary knows what he’s doing.

UCF may be a newcomer on the national stage, but head coach George O’Leary is as old-school as they come. He’s coached his share of big games, beaten his share of big-name schools, and he’ll have his team prepped for Baylor. More important, he’s had the better part of a month to study the Bears’ tendencies and get a good game plan in place.

7. Second-half magic.

If the game is close down the stretch, the advantage might belong to UCF. The Knights have won six times this year after trailing in the second half, they’re 7-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, and Bortles is among the nation’s top QBs when trailing late in games. Baylor, meanwhile, has played just one close game all season.

8. The Oklahoma State effect.

Through the first nine weeks of the season, Baylor looked unbeatable, scoring 60-plus points six times. Then the Bears traveled to Oklahoma State and were smoked 49-17. They’ve averaged just 29 points in their past three, including barely edging a bad TCU team. UCF has had a month to review the tape from Oklahoma State and mimic what the Cowboys did so well to slow Baylor down.

9. The kicking game.

OK, so it’d be a bit of a surprise if this game comes down to a field goal, but if it does, UCF’s Shawn Moffitt is as good as they get. He’s connected on 20 of 22 tries this year, including 4 of 5 of 40 yards or more. Baylor’s Aaron Jones, on the other hand, is just 14-of-22 this season.

10. Tigers are never wrong.

A tiger at the Phoenix Zoo picked UCF. And who’s going to argue with a tiger?

UCF's McCray brothers go out on top

December, 31, 2013
12/31/13
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Sunday routine is always the same, no matter how late the previous night’s game ended.

Jordan and Justin McCray wake up early and head to campus. They pop in the film of the previous day’s game, critiquing one another’s performance. Then they rush to the coaches’ offices, tracking down a graduate assistant to find out which one graded out higher for the game.

[+] EnlargeJustin McCray
AP Photo/John RaouxBlake Bortles (5) celebrates with Justin McCray. The UCF QB can tell the twins apart, but it's taken years to figure out how.
“We’re always the first ones in,” Justin said. “And we’re always giving each other a hard time.”

The sibling rivalry between the twin brothers goes back as far as they can remember. From the time they were kids, both wanted the upper hand -- a way to distinguish himself from his brother. Riding bikes, doing push-ups, chowing down at dinner -- everything was a competition.

“I’m pretty much a little bit better in everything than Justin,” Jordan joked.

Even now that both brothers are two-year starters on UCF’s offensive line, both team captains and All-AAC first-teamers, both on the verge of the biggest -- and final -- game of their college careers, the competition continues.

“They argue about who runs a faster 40-yard dash,” quarterback Blake Bortles said of his two offensive guards, “like it’s even relevant.”

After four years together, Bortles has found a foolproof way to tell his guards apart. Justin, the right guard, has a small freckle on his face. Jordan, the left guard, doesn’t. It’s not easily noticeable, but Bortles has studied them closely.

Justin is a little leaner, too. Jordan a bit thicker. Never mind that the media guide lists them both as 6-3, 310 pounds.

“I don’t think it’s a big difference,” Bortles said, “but after four years, that’s what I see.”

It’s tough to separate the McCray brothers, and that’s by design.

They’ve spent their lives competing, looking for an edge on a someone who’s a mirror image, but they’ve never wanted to be apart.

Coming out of high school, only a handful of schools offered both brothers a scholarship. A few were eager to take one and allow the other preferred walk-on status, but that was never a consideration for the McCrays.

[+] EnlargeJordan McCray
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJordan McCray says "Im pretty much a little bit better in everything than Justin."
“It was a package deal,” Jordan said. “That’s why we came here to UCF.”

UCF felt like home, Justin said. Their older brother, Cliff, played there, too. But the family ties didn’t mean an easy road to football success.

As freshmen, both brothers struggled to adjust. As sophomores, Jordan said he took a big step forward, while Justin lagged a bit behind. As juniors, it was Justin who progressed quickly. At each step, they measured themselves against each other.

This season, however, both have been exceptional, and they’re a big reason why UCF is playing in its first BCS bowl game.

“For them to compete with each other and want to top the other one, it makes you want to keep up with them, be in the race with them,” center Joey Grant said. “It’s fun to watch, to see them fight over who’s going to be better. That pushes the whole offensive line to be better as a unit.”

But if Wednesday’s Tostitos Fiesta Bowl is the culmination of a lifetime of competitiveness between the brothers, it’s also bittersweet.

Jordan and Justin both have NFL aspirations, but they realize it’s unlikely they’ll both find a home at the next level on the same team. Wednesday, most likely, will be the last time they play together.

It’s a weighty realization for two brothers who have never been more than a few feet apart on a football field, and they can’t ignore the implications. But they also know the moment was inevitable, and if the end was going to arrive, it couldn’t have been scripted any better.

“Just to be on this big stage at the Fiesta Bowl and playing a great team in Baylor,” Jordan said, “I wouldn’t want to go out any other way.”


SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — When last year’s Holiday Bowl ended, Bryce Petty shook hands with teammates, found a seat on the team bus, and fired off a tweet.

“Last game as a backup,” he wrote. “Tomorrow it starts.”

[+] EnlargeBryce Petty
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsBaylor's Bryce Petty sat for three seasons behind Robert Griffin III and Nick Florence before finally getting his chance to start at quarterback.
After three years waiting in the wings, it was a message to fans that Petty was eager to take the reins of the Baylor offense. But it was a message to himself, too -- a reminder things were different now, and he had to prepare accordingly.

“It’s funny how much exposure it got,” Petty said. “But at the same time, it was a mental note for myself.”

Petty was a backup to Heisman winner Robert Griffin III, then sat behind Nick Florence, the school’s single-season record holder in passing yards. But in his first season as a starter, Petty has done something either of his predecessors managed: A Big 12 title and a trip to a BCS bowl game.

Now UCF awaits in Wednesday’s Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, and Petty said the game represents a chance for him to put his stamp on a program that, in the past few years, has been defined by its quarterbacks.

“It's the making of a dynasty,” Petty said. “That's what we want, that's why we came here, is to build that legacy.”

It took a little longer than he expected for Petty to add his part to that legacy, but now that he’s taken the Bears to an unprecedented level, he sees the value in his long wait for the starting job.

Watching from the sideline was a grueling experience, but it was one he could learn from. Those lessons have been put to the test this season -- something that crystalized for Petty after Baylor thumped rival Oklahoma 41-12 on Nov. 7.

“After the OU game, I was thinking, man, it was a good thing that I waited,” Petty said. “It was a good thing I stuck with it. It was a good thing I worked as hard as I did last year to be the starter and have it not go my way.”

Petty is a perfectionist. There’s no detail too small to ignore, and three years as a backup allowed him to mine every aspect of his game and refine it to stark precision. Now the starter, that precision is showing on the field.

Petty is second in the country in yards-per-attempt (10.8) and passer rating (179.2). He has completed more passes of 25-plus yards than anyone (46). He has thrown for 30 touchdowns, run for 11 more and he has been picked off just twice.

“He’s a perfectionist,” receiver Antwan Goodley said. “He’s like that all the time -- practice, games, workouts, offseason. That’s how he is.”

And for all he has accomplished in his one season as the starter, Petty insists he’s not done. He announced last month that he’d be returning for his senior season in 2014 -- a decision he said was easy. He likes to be prepared for every challenge, and he wasn’t sure he was prepared for the NFL.

But more than that, he’d waited too long to simply leave Baylor the first chance he had.

“I wasn’t wanting to be a one-and-done deal, no matter how good this season was,” Petty said. “That’s weird to say, but there’s a lot of things I want to do here still.”

That decision, of course, means another year for Petty as the starter, and another year for his backups to wait for their shot.

It’s a road map that has worked pretty well so far, Baylor coach Art Briles said.

“[Petty] had a great mentorship,” Briles said. “And it’s just like the guys in the room with him right now, looking at him, watching him and having a chance to grow from him.”

Renewing acquaintances: Baylor tailback Lache Seastrunk hasn’t seen UCF quarterback Blake Bortles since the two teams arrived in Arizona for the Fiesta Bowl, but he has an idea what kind of greeting is in store.

“He’s going to come up and be like, ‘What’s up,” Seastrunk said. “Because Blake has the same personality as I do -- outgoing, and he doesn’t care what anybody says.”

Seastrunk and Bortles roomed together at a recruiting camp in Paisley, Fla., spending three days together practicing and joking around.

They’ve kept in touch over the years, but communications have been limited as UCF and Baylor get set to play each other Wednesday. Still, Bortles said he’s looking forward to a reunion.

“I had a lot of fun being around him, hanging out,” Bortles said. “And he’s a lot of fun to watch on the field. He’s an amazing football player and a really good running back.”

Keeping quiet: While Petty ended any NFL speculation weeks ago, Bortles is letting the guessing game continue a while -- and he continues to insist he’s made no decision about whether he’ll leave early for the NFL draft after Wednesday’s game.

“I don’t know because I really haven’t sat down to think about it,” Bortles said. “I wish I knew.”

Bortles is considered a first-round pick if he entered the draft this season, potentially going in the top five. He began to climb draft boards late in the season, and he said he decided then to put off any decision until after UCF’s season came to an end.

“When stuff started coming up, it was like -- don't worry about it,” Bortles said. “I told my parents not to talk to anybody, that we would figure it out when the season is over.”

UCF defense relishes underdog role

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
6:15
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The film can be a bit intimidating, UCF safety Brandon Alexander said.

Baylor’s quarterback, Bryce Petty, is fast. He makes quick decisions, has a quick release and he can run.

The receivers are fast, too. They stretch the field, and the Bears' big-play potential is immense.

The running backs are quick, juking through traffic and breaking tackles for huge chunks of yards.

"Their offensive linemen are even fast,” Alexander joked.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Alexander
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsDefensive back Brandon Alexander says the Knights are ready for Baylor's high-powered offense.
This is the challenge for UCF’s defense, perhaps the most overlooked unit playing in a BCS bowl game this year.

Baylor’s offense is a whirlwind of precise execution, breathtaking tempo and dizzying speed. Central Florida’s defense is young, unheralded and, after Jim Fleming left to take over at Rhode Island, without its coordinator.

It’s no surprise then that the Knights’ defense isn’t getting much pre-game love or that they’re feeding off the litany of doubters.

“It’s an opportunity,” cornerback Clayton Geathers said. “We come with a chip on our shoulder, and we’re out to prove a lot of people wrong.”

They may be largely anonymous on a national stage, but the Knights have been solid defensively all season. UCF ranks 12th nationally in scoring defense, allowing less than 20 points per game, despite having just two seniors on its two-deep. It’s an athletic group that plays sound fundamentally, and if the rest of the world is overlooking the unit, Baylor isn’t.

“They’re very disciplined and have a lot of guys that can run sideline to sideline,” Petty said. “Just because we haven’t heard too much about them doesn’t mean they don’t have talent. It pops out on tape. They’re tough.”

Still, there’s no question the test UCF faces in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl is unlike anything it has seen before. Coach George O'Leary said Baylor’s tempo is something the Knights are used to from their days in Conference USA, but the skill with which the Bears execute is at another level.

“We ran a play every 18 seconds in practice the last two weeks, but it’s the quality of play you can’t simulate,” O’Leary said. “It’s quantity, but the quality isn’t there that Baylor is going to have.”

Baylor leads the country in scoring offense (53 points per game) and averages 50 yards more per game than any other team in the nation, while running nearly 83 plays per game -- a frenetic pace that will test the young UCF defense.

From a conditioning standpoint, Alexander said he’s confident the Knights are ready. The extra time to prep for Baylor has helped with the film study, too. Both will be key to slowing down the big-play Baylor offense, but the secret weapon, defensive lineman Thomas Niles said, will be UCF’s physicality, which he hopes will offset the Bears’ up-tempo style.

"You've got to disrupt their rhythm," Niles said. "You can't let [Petty] stay in one spot and be comfortable. If you let him sit there, he'll pick you apart."

Baylor gets healthy: As if UCF’s defense didn’t have enough to worry about, Baylor running back Lache Seastrunk said the offense is about as healthy as it has been all season.

Seastrunk said the extended downtime between the regular season and the bowl gave him a chance to get heal a groin injury that cost him nearly three full games late in the year.

“I needed the break to make sure my groin was all together and sealed up tight,” Seastrunk said, adding that he’s now 100 percent healthy.

Meanwhile, senior receiver Tevin Reese is set to return to the lineup, too. A wrist injury cost him the final four games of the regular season, but he’ll add another dynamic downfield threat, along with Antwan Goodley, for the Bears in the Fiesta Bowl.

“When you have two guys that can vertically stretch you, it’s tough [for the defense] and makes our job easier,” Petty said. “It adds another dynamic to an offense that’s already pretty explosive. For us, it’s like having a new toy.”

Easy intro for Ferraro: UCF’s new defensive coordinator is taking a hands-off approach to his first few days on the job.

Paul Ferraro was hired earlier this week to replace the departed Fleming, and while he’s in Arizona for the Fiesta Bowl, he’s working from a distance during practice.

“I’m really just observing, letting them do their thing and getting to know them a little bit,” Ferraro said. “It gives me a little bit of a jump [on 2014].”

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl

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

2013 was an exercise in patience

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
9:06
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Red Smith, the poet laureate of sweat, once wrote that 90 feet between bases is the nearest to perfection that man has yet achieved. The basepath has nothing on the length of college football's regular season, which, with the patience of a kindergarten teacher and the tenacity of Scotland Yard, identified Florida State and Auburn as the two best teams to play for the BCS National Championship.

Tenacity is the lifeblood of a sport that demands physical and mental exertion for 60 minutes. Patience, not so much. Patience in college football is attributed to tailbacks who wait for a hole to appear. But in a sport in which a quarterback may have three seconds to complete a pass without getting his slobber knocked, patience often goes untapped.

Yet patience has never been more important than it has been in 2013, and not just because it was nearly midnight on the final Saturday of the regular season before Michigan State proved that Ohio State didn't have the credentials to play for the crystal football. In a season made predictable only by its unpredictability, patience became the coin of the realm.

Patience rewarded no fans more than at Auburn. It didn't take any patience to appreciate the rapid rise of the Tigers from 3-9 in 2012 to 12-1 this year. But the way that the Tigers waited until the very end to upend Georgia on a Hail Mary tipped pass and defeat archrival No. 1 Alabama on a 109-yard field goal return for a touchdown, focused upon the power of faith no matter what reality promised.

Patience proved critical at Florida State, not because head coach Jimbo Fisher decided to start a redshirt freshman at quarterback. Jameis Winston played with poise and the acumen of an upperclassman as the Seminoles cruised to a 13-0 record (12 wins by at least 27 points). But Florida State fans had to hold their collective garnet-and-gold breath for several weeks before local authorities decided not to charge Winston in a sexual assault case.

Patience paid off at Missouri, which had endured a 5-7, injury-filled debut in the SEC in 2012. Coach Gary Pinkel revamped his training and practice methods, and took advantage of the depth that resulted from playing so many players in 2012. The Tigers won the SEC East and finished 11-2 this season.

To continue reading, click here.

Video: UCF 17, SMU 13

December, 7, 2013
12/07/13
4:04
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Blake Bortles rushed for two touchdowns to lead No. 16 UCF past SMU 17-13.

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