Fiesta Bowl Preview: Baylor-Central Florida

New Year’s Night’s college football action will feature the Fiesta Bowl, as the Baylor Bears and the Central Florida Knights take the field in Tempe (8:30 PM ET, ESPN). The nine key points to take into this game—the Notebook Nine—based on personnel matchups, season-long performance, historical context and the view from Las Vegas are below.

*The smart money is in love with Baylor. The Bears are a hefty 17-point favorite and the Over/Under is 71. If the game plays out like that, we’re looking out a Baylor win to the tune of 44-27. The pointspread makes the Bears one of the two biggest favorites of the college bowl season. The other to give 17 was Notre Dame. For what it’s worth, the Irish won their game against Rutgers, but the 13-point margin was a little short for those who played the favorite.

college football bowl history*As far as historical context…there is none. This is the first appearance in the major bowls for Central Florida, as head coach George O’Leary has come all the way back from his humiliation in December 2002 when he got the Notre Dame job, then had to step down five days later after falsehoods on his resume were revealed. The last time Baylor played on college football’s biggest stage was 1980, when they reached the Cotton Bowl. They lost that game 30-2. The Bears have not won a major bowl since 1956.

*A head coach and a quarterback might be showcasing themselves for the NFL. Baylor boss Art Briles has seen his name start to surface for various openings in the pros. So far it’s only with the Washington Redskins, because of his connection to the school’s most famous alum, Robert Griffin III. But if the Bears put on an offensive show, the rumors might broaden. Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles is seeing his stock rise among NFL scouts, and a big night in Tempe might persuade the junior to come out early and be a first-round pick.

*The Baylor offense gets a lot of accolades and they deserve them. Quarterback Bryce Petty leads a passing attack that gets the ball downfield, to the tune of 10.80 yards-per-attempt. And it doesn’t come at the expense of efficiency, as Petty has thrown just two interceptions all year. Lache Seastrunk and Shock Linwood are both big-time runners, and Antwan Goodley and Tevin Reese at receiver are each explosive.

*It’s the running game that will determine Baylor’s ultimate success. Petty got his numbers in the team’s two worst offensive games, a subpar win over Kansas State and a blowout loss at Oklahoma State. But the running game faltered in those two games.

*Baylor is a heavily penalized team, the fourth-most in the country. It hasn’t held them back thus far, and I suppose they can point to the fact that three teams ahead of them are Oregon, Washington and Texas Tech, all of whom have won bowl games. But it is something to watch, to see if the Central Florida defense can take advantage of some advantageous down and distance situations.

*Central Florida is just a very well-balanced offensive team. Bortles is high-percentage (68%), gets it downfield (9.35 YPA) and he spread the ball around to the entire receiving corps. Storm Johnson is a 1,000-yard rusher and on a game-by-game basis, the run-pass balance this team gets is striking.

*UCF played its best football in a stretch from mid-September to mid-October. They won at Penn State, only lost by three to South Carolina and upset Louisville. The downside is that while they won their last six games, this stretch was marked by some very unimpressive showings against truly bad competition. That includes two uninspired wins over South Florida and SMU to end the year.

*The Knights’ defense has had problems with good quarterback. Even in the win over Penn State, Nittany Lion quarterback Christian Hackenberg had a good game. The win over Louisville came in spite of a big night from Teddy Bridgewater. This is not necessarily a knock on the UCF pass defense—that’s one good quarterback and one great one that I just mentioned. But Petty is certainly in their class.

I’m going to pick Baylor, and in spite of my misgivings about this pointspread, I’ll take the Bears to cover the number. Because I feel like this game is also going Over 71, a 17-point margin isn’t quite as imposing as it was for Notre Dame, who plays defense-first games. I also like the Big 12’s early showing in the bowl season.

There is concern over how fired up Baylor can be to play Central Florida, but the last time the Bears won a major bowl game, Don Larsen was pitching a World Series perfect game, and Dwight Eisenhower was going back-to-back over Adlai Stevenson. If this isn’t a motivator, I don’t know what is.