- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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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.
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?
20hSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
2dTom VanHaaren and Erik McKinney