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Sunday, December 4, 2011
Updated: December 5, 4:07 AM ET
Cowboys, Cardinal in Fiesta Bowl

Associated Press

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- It's been a long, difficult year for the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, first with a dud of a game, then nearly losing its BCS status after an investigation into financial improprieties.

As hard as bowl organizers worked to restore its image, the biggest boost to the Fiesta Bowl figured to come when the news turned away from the allegations and investigations back to the field.

By landing Oklahoma State and Stanford, two dynamic teams that just happen to be Nos. 3 and 4 in the BCS standings, the Fiesta Bowl got the golden game it needed.

"If you want to come up with an event that's going to focus everyone's attention on the game, you couldn't ask for much more than this," Fiesta Bowl executive director Robert Shelton said Sunday night.

Oklahoma State (11-1) fell just short in its national championship bid. Despite having a resume that stacked up against Alabama, the Cowboys were third in the final BCS standings, oh-so-close behind the Crimson Tide, who'll face LSU in the national championship game.

Stanford (11-1) lost its chance to play for the national title and its Pac-12 hopes with a loss to Oregon. The Cardinal still earned a spot in a BCS bowl for the second straight season and finished ahead of the Ducks in the BCS standings.

Throw in two of the nation's best offenses and premier quarterbacks in Brandon Weeden of Oklahoma State and Stanford's Andrew Luck, the Jan. 2 game in Glendale will be as good as gets outside the national championship.

"I think this game is going to be great for college football," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "I think it's going to be exciting. You have a lot of what you're looking for."

Last season, the Fiesta Bowl was left with a so-so matchup between Oklahoma and Connecticut.

The concern heading in was that it would be a blowout and that UConn, being so far away, wouldn't travel very well.

Both happened.

Oklahoma won in a rollover, 48-20, and Huskies fans didn't travel, the school selling just 5,000 of its required 17,500 tickets. The University of Phoenix Stadium was about 6,000 below capacity and fans weren't too excited to watch it on TV, either, with ratings down 22 percent from the year before.

The 2012 game should have no such problems.

It was all going to depend on the poll voters and the complicated BCS rankings.

If projections held up and LSU met Alabama in a rematch between SEC powers, the Fiesta figured to get its dream matchup of Oklahoma State and Stanford. Had Oklahoma State vaulted over the Crimson Tide to No. 2 in the BCS, well, the Fiesta Bowl would be left to scramble for someone to face Stanford.

The Fiesta got its fiesta, though Oklahoma State isn't too thrilled about it.

It's not for any disdain for the Fiesta. It's just that the Cowboys believed they deserved a shot at the national championship game.

They had a good argument.

Oklahoma State won its first outright conference title since 1948 -- in the three-team Missouri Valley -- and ended the season with a statement, routing rival Oklahoma 44-10 Saturday night.

The Cowboys had more quality wins than Alabama but took a big hit with a double-overtime loss to 6-6 Iowa State two weeks ago -- a day after Oklahoma State women's basketball coach Kurt Budke and an assistant coach were killed in a plane crash.

Still, the Cowboys believed their one-loss season was as good as Alabama's and said the Tide already had its shot at the top-ranked Tigers, losing 9-6 in overtime last month -- in Tuscaloosa, no less.

"If we'd have taken care of business at Iowa State, we wouldn't be having this discussion," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. I think it really comes down to what I said last night, and I really meant it was: `They had their shot. We want our shot,' and it didn't work out that way. That kind of disappoints me a little bit that enough people that have some say-so in it across the country wouldn't say, `We already saw them play once, at home."

Oklahoma State's loss could be a gain for the Fiesta Bowl after a difficult year.

President John Junker was fired in March for allowing excess spending, an apparent illegal system of political contributions and an effort to cover up the problems.

The Fiesta Bowl kept its spot in the BCS rotation, but was placed on a year's probation and fined $1 million.

The bowl hired Shelton, the former University of Arizona president, and worked to repair its image while overhauling how the organization is run.

A good game should certainly help in the recovery process.

Oklahoma State and Stanford had seasons that rank among the best in their histories, each coming within a loss of playing for a national championship. Their offenses are among the best in the country -- the Cowboys were No. 3 nationally in total offense, the Cardinal 11 -- and have playmakers all over the field.

And they have Weeden and Luck.

Barely an afterthought for the Heisman Trophy at the start of the season, Weeden inserted himself into the conversation with a stellar senior season.

A 28-year-old who played five years of professional baseball, Weeden broke his own school records with 4,328 yards passing and a completion rate of 72 percent. He also set single-season records for attempts (522) and completions (379), matched his record of 34 touchdown passes and finished fourth nationally with 352.75 yards of total offense per game.

Luck returned for his junior season after finishing as the runner-up to Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton last year.

The projected No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, Luck threw for 35 touchdowns this season to break his school record of 32 a year ago and set the Stanford career record of 80 TD passes in just three years.

He finished this season with 3,170 yards passing, a 70 percent completion rate and only nine interceptions -- without having an elite wide receiver to throw to.

"The nature of the bowl game with two quarterbacks who have put good numbers on good teams, I'm sure there will be a great story line for everybody," Luck said.

It sure will -- and could give the Fiesta Bowl just the boost it needed.