Baylor Bears vs. UCF Knights Preview / Poll / Prediction Thread

Stephen Dunn

Tomorrow evening, Baylor plays the biggest game on the biggest stage in program history. The Bears are a heavy favorite in Vegas to finish the season 12-1. What do you think?

vs.
6/5/6 BAYLOR (11-1, 8-1) vs. 15/15/15 UCF (11-1, 8-0)
Jan. 1, 2013 | 7:30 p.m. CT/6:30 p.m. MT
Glendale, Ariz. | University of Phoenix Stadium (73,000)

TV: ESPN
Watch | Listen | GametrackerGametracker | Game Notes Notes | In-Game BlogStream | Bowl Central | Tickets

ODB Game Hub: Fiesta Bowl -- Baylor vs. UCF
Inside Baylor Sports: Tostitos Fiesta Bowl
Fiest Bowl Meet the Press Events: Offense | Defense | Coach Briles
Stats Preview: Baylor vs. UCF By the Numbers
First Look: UCF Knights
SB Nation Blogs: The Knight's Watch (doesn't exist yet)
Spread: Baylor -16.5
TV Coverage: ESPN
BAYLOR UNIFORMS: Black Jerseys (rest yet to be determined)

SB Nation UCF Preview: UCF Attempts to Avoid a Slip
BaylorBears.com Preview: Fiesta Bowl!

Check the links at the side a little further down the page for more information you absolutely need to know!

Injury News:

Baylor -- Tevin Reese (WILL PLAY), Spencer Drango (OUT), Bryce Hager (OUT), all others reportedly healthy.

UCF -- I have no idea.  Any help from UCF fans in attendance would be appreciated.

Statmilk Infographic:

Check back, it'll be here.

Thoughts on the Game:

Much has been made, both here and elsewhere, about the fact that Blake Bortles is the best QB Baylor will have faced this season, and UCF probably the owners of the best offense.  They pass the ball well, run it even better, and are extremely good on passing downs due to the magic of Mr. Bortles.  We've talked about all of those things ad nauseum, and they are as true now as they were then.

What has been somewhat lost, however, is the pressure the combination of Baylor's outstanding offense and extremely aggressive defense can put on them to play at their highest possible level continually through the game.  Because our offense is (to create a phrase) so explosively consistent, and UCF's defense seems to be overmatched, the UCF offense will have to play about as well as it can for the entire game if they hope to outscore us.  For a variety of reasons mostly related to our ability to stop the run in the backfield, something Bill Connelly talked about at length in his Fiesta Bowl preview linked at right, and a secondary that has improved by leaps and bounds over the course of the season, I think we can stop that from happening.  That doesn't take anything away from Bortles, Storm Johnson, or William Stanback.  It is a statement of confidence in the people we have lining up opposite them.  I've heard people say that Baylor hasn't faced a QB like Bortles this season.  That's true.  What's also true is that UCF hasn't faced a complete team like Baylor that can put so much pressure on you from the opening kick.

Keys to the Game / Matchups:

It's impossible to know going into this game how much of a role motivation, a huge factor in bowl games year after year, will play.  Baylor has on its side the quest for the greatest season in program history and the validation of everything we've thought we could be since Briles got here.  UCF has the slightly cliche' underdog mentality that gives them something to prove to everyone watching on what, for them, is probably the biggest possible stage.  Neither is really dealing with the hangover that comes from feeling you should have been somewhere else, since both won their conferences to get where they've never been before.  This isn't a situation like last night's Holiday Bowl, where it seems Arizona State wanted no part of a Texas Tech team clearly ready and willing to prove a point going into the offseason.

There are a couple of matchups that I will be watching in this game specifically, the biggest of which for Baylor will be Tevin Reese, who is returning from injury after missing 3.5 games, against the UCF safeties.  Our offense is designed to force opposing defenses to make one or several choices and then punishing them, regardless of the option chosen.  If you spread your safeties to help your corners, we'll run up the middle.  Keep them in and we'll pass.  Play them close, we throw over the top.  Play them back, we'll either run it right at you or take advantage of open passing lanes.  The same goes for linebackers, who we try to make line up against players they have no business covering and then take advantage.  The teams that limit us offensively avoid making those choices -- playing our game -- in the first place.  They stop our rushing offense at the point of attack with their defensive lines, meaning they don't have to commit other resources to the effort and compromising themselves in other places.  Limiting your own vulnerabilities limits our ability to take advantage of those vulnerabilities.

The reason I mention all this, which you've heard before from people much more knowledgeable than I, is to say that I don't think there is a single player on this team who is more important to our offensive scheme than Tevin Reese.  We can stretch the field horizontally with guys like Lache Seastrunk, Corey Coleman, and Antwan Goodley.  Goodley can clearly be effective going down the field, as well.  But there is no good defense for Tevin's pure speed, and having that option on the table opens things up tremendously in almost every respect.  If he is truly healthy and can be the threat he once was or even close to it, that is the definition of game-changing.  He can almost take UCF's safeties, Clayton Geathers and Brandon Alexander, out of the game himself, leaving no help in run support for linebackers Troy Gray, Terrance Plummer, and Michael Easton or in coverage for cornerbacks Jordan Ozerities and Jacoby Glenn. Part of me wonders if you might not see Baylor use him purely for that threat in a game plan much like that of last year's Holiday Bowl, where we ran the ball 65+ times and threw just 13 passes. I'm sure Glasco Martin would like that in his final college game.

On the other side, the key matchup I'll be looking at will be our defensive line versus the offensive line of UCF.  If Baylor can stop the run with our defensive line alone, I have a very hard time seeing UCF win this game.  Bortles is fantastic, there's no denying that, but their offense as a whole isn't designed for him to throw the ball 40 times.  He hasn't done it in 2013, they don't want him to do it, and they probably won't be effective if he has to.  Our latest depth chart lists Andrew Billings and Beau Blackshear as the starters at DT flanked by seniors Chris McAllister and Terrance Lloyd at DE.  Their play will be critical in Baylor's effort to eliminate UCF's balance.  We cannot allow UCF to slog their way down the field and chew clock, keeping our offense from scoring with theirs in a way their defense probably can't.  And make no mistake, I think that's exactly what they're going to try to do.

My Prediction:

Every time I look at the stats and the matchups, I come to the same conclusion.  UCF's offense is really good and will probably gain yards and score points despite our defense's best efforts.  But the gap between their offense and our defense, assuming one exists, isn't nearly so large, I believe, as that between our offense and their defense.  And I strongly believe that gap is even bigger now, with Tevin Reese back, than the stats probably show.  Remember, we've played basically a third of the season in the meat of our defensive schedule, without him.  I can't shake the feeling that Baylor will run all over UCF with Lache, Glasco, and Rashodrick Linwood, basically recreating the 2012 Holiday Bowl minus quite so insane a run/pass ratio.

I like Baylor to win based on the strength of an offense that UCF won't stop.  We'll score in the 40s, possibly higher if we can raise the tempo of the game.  UCF will score in the 20s, maybe low 30s.  The biggest thing determining the final score of the game will be how it begins, not how it finishes.  If Baylor can get the offense going from the start, UCF won't have the option of running their tortoise-like offense to try to come back.  Time will be their enemy, not their friend.  If not, the longer the game remains close, the better things are for the Knights.  It's what their entire scheme on both sides of the ball is designed to do.

It's worth noting that the game will be indoors on an NFL surface, which probably favors the team more known for speed.  That's Baylor.  It won't be the turf of Floyd Casey, but it won't be 24 degrees with 15 mph winds, either.  And thank God for that.

Final Score: Baylor 45, UCF 27.

Give me your predictions in the comments and vote in the poll!  Also, as a challenge to the community, if someone wants to write a good "What UCF has to do to win the Fiesta Bowl" fanpost, I'd be more than happy to throw it up on the front page for tomorrow.

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