GLENDALE, AZ - FILE: Travis Lewis #28 of the Oklahoma Sooners celebrates the Sooners 48-20 victory against the Connecticut Huskies during the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl at the University of Phoenix Stadium on January 1, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona. It was announced on August 9, 2011 that Travis Lewis of the Oklahoma Sooners broke his foot during practice and will be out up to eight weeks. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
How did the Fiesta Bowl rise to prominence? It all dates back to 1986, when it convinced No. 1 Miami and No. 2 Penn State to play for the de facto national championship, resulting in what's still the most-watched college football game of all time.
No bowl has benefitted more by its association with the Bowl Championship Series than the Fiesta Bowl. By participating in the BCS precursors Bowl Coalition and Bowl Alliance, the young upstart found a way to usurp the Cotton Bowl and became one of the big boys dominating New Year's Day.
Born out of the old Western Athletic Conference's frustration of being snubbed of bowl bids, the Fiesta Bowl came of age in the 1980s when, free of conference affiliations, it was able to arrange attractive bowl matchups between major conference opponents. But the real breakthrough came in 1986, when it convinced No. 1 Miami and No. 2 Penn State, both independents at the time, to face each other in the de facto national championship game.
It was a real coup. First, the game was moved back a day to Jan. 2, so that it was the last game to be played that season and had the platform (and all the TV audience) all to itself. Then, the brash Hurricanes helped to stir things up by staging a walkout during a joint team meal session, with Jerome Brown uttering his infamous line of "did the Japanese go and sit down and have dinner with Pearl Harbor before they bombed them?"
The game lived up to all the hype, with Penn State pulling a stunning upset by intercepting Miami's Vinny Testaverde five times, the last of which sealed its 14-10 victory. The game, televised by NBC, earned a 24.9 rating, to-date still the most watched college football game of all time.
The Fiesta Bowl parlayed that success in the '90s by becoming a true heavyweight when the BCS was formed for the 1998 season. It got to host the first BCS national championship game and three more after that. For the 2006 season, it moved into the new University of Phoenix Stadium and staged the first BCS title game in the double-host format.
Befitting of the bowl's humble beginnings, three non-AQ teams have used the Fiesta Bowl as a stage to catapult their programs into the rank of powerhouses. Utah, Boise State and TCU each played in its first BCS bowl in the Fiesta and each has since joined a BCS AQ conference.
But the bowl's stature and status were severely threatened when allegation surfaced that the Fiesta Bowl hierarchy engaged in illegal political campaign contributions. An ensuing investigation caused the ouster of longtime CEO John Junker. The BCS, in mid-2011, briefly considered expelling the bowl from the alliance, but ultimately decided against it after fining the Fiesta $1 million.
Here's a quick look at the Fiesta Bowl in the BCS era:
Best Game: The 2007 game, the first to be played in the new University of Phoenix Stadium, will go down in history as one of the most exciting games ever. Down 28-10 in the third quarter against upstart Boise State, Oklahoma roared back by scoring consecutive 25 points, the last on an interception return for a touchdown with 1:02 left, seemingly securing its comeback victory. But the Broncos, now down 35-28 and facing a fourth-and-18 with 18 seconds left, executed a hook-and-ladder play to perfection to tie the game and send it to overtime. After OU scored on its first play in OT, Boise State needed to convert a gadget play on fourth-and-goal to stay alive. And the Broncos had one more trick play up its sleeve - a Statue of Liberty on the two-point conversion completed their improbable 43-42 victory.
Worst Game: It was one of the worst losses in Notre Dame history, but the Irish probably shouldn't even have been in the 2001 game in the first place. The Fiesta Bowl passed up two other top 10 teams (including eighth-ranked Nebraska, which had won in South Bend that season) to grab lower-ranked Notre Dame against No. 5 Oregon State. The Irish were thoroughly outclassed, as the Beavers ran roughshod over them, scoring 29 points in the third quarter to put the game away. The outcome could've been far worse than the 41-9 wipeout had Notre Dame not scored a touchdown in garbage time and the Beavers not having played so recklessly, racking up a mind-boggling 18 penalties for 174 yards.
Best Performance: After five consecutive losses in BCS bowls, including three in BCS title games and two in the Fiesta, Oklahoma finally ended that slide with a 48-20 thrashing of Connecticut in the Fiesta Bowl last season. Quarterback Landry Jones completed 34 of 50 passes for a school bowl record 429 yards and also three touchdowns. It was a total loss for the Big East champion and unranked Huskies. The school sold fewer than 3,000 of its alloted 17,500 tickets and ended up taking a net loss of nearly $2 million for its first trip to a BCS game.
Biggest Controversy: The 2003 Fiesta Bowl - and the 2002 national championship - turned on one call. Miami had seemingly defeated Ohio State, 24-17, in overtime, when back judge Terry Porter belatedly threw a flag on Miami cornerback Glenn Sharpe for pass interference on a fourth-and-goal play. Porter claimed that he "replayed it in my mind" before he threw the flag. Given new life and a new set of downs, Ohio State got the tying score and then won in the second overtime, 31-24, to end the Hurricanes' 34-game winning streak.
Prediction for 2012 Game: This year's game features two of the nation's top passers, with Stanford's Andrew Luck and Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden. It's also the second-highest profile bowl game, after the BCS title game, matching up two one-loss teams ranked third and fourth, respectively. Though Luck is overall a better passer and will be the top pick in the next NFL Draft, Oklahoma State's offense has more weapons and speed. The Cowboys should win this in a mini-shootout, 41-35.
Samuel Chi is the proprietor of BCSGuru.com and managing editor of RealClearSports. Sam's college football and BCS analysis, exclusively for SB Nation, will appear twice weekly throughout the season. Follow him on Twitter at BCSGuru.