SB Nation

Bill Connelly | January 1, 2014

The big 2014 Fiesta Bowl breakdown

UCF vs. Baylor

As a whole, the BCS did a decent job of choosing top teams for top bowl games. In terms of the F/+ rankings, the top five teams are all represented, as are six of the top seven and seven of the top nine. Considering limitations -- a two-team max from a given conference, automatic bids for conference champions -- that's not terrible. But there are a couple of selections that raised eyebrows.

One in particular stands out, a team that ranked no better than 27th in either offense, defense, or special teams, one that barely limped past the No. 47, No. 60, and No. 80 teams at home and suffered losses by an average of 22.5 points. When we're talking about elite teams deserving of elite bowls, there's just no way we can include this team in the conversation.

I'm talking, of course, about … Oklahoma. What, you thought I was talking about somebody else?

Throughout November, we heard complaints about UCF's likely inclusion in a BCS bowl thanks to its upset win at Louisville. We heard these complaints from fans of both teams that would be excluded in favor of UCF and teams that might have to play UCF instead of a real team (like Oklahoma).

The Knights don't belong! Look at these bad teams they're barely beating! And they're UCF!

To some degree, these complaints were right. At 24th in the F/+ rankings, UCF bears no claim to elite football. The Knights play strong offense and special teams and get by with big plays on defense. They've been all over the map in 2013, playing well against good teams and poorly against bad ones.

But they are virtually indistinguishable from No. 23 Oklahoma, an at-large selection, and they're closer to No. 15 Clemson, another at-large selection, than Clemson is to Baylor or any of the top seven teams. They're better than a lot of previous Big East champions were, and they're certainly strong enough to hold their own for a while against a Baylor team that won the Big 12. Underestimate George O'Leary's Knights at your own peril.

Make no mistake: If Baylor brings its A-game to University of Phoenix Stadium, the Bears should win by a couple of touchdowns. That I'm going to these lengths to differentiate an underdog from an underdog still means UCF is an underdog.

But there's a difference between that and not belonging on the same field as somebody. If we're going to complain about UCF, we have to complain about Oklahoma, too.

How they got here

UCF's season to date

Viewed from afar, UCF reached 11-1 and won a conference title in relatively normal fashion. The Knights went 1-1 against teams ranked in the F/+ top 25 and went undefeated against everybody else. They split the scoring against top-25 teams and outscored teams ranked No. 26 to 50 by two points, No. 51 to 75 by about six points, No. 76 to 100 by about 14 points, and No. 101 to 125 by almost five touchdowns.

This fits the profile of a pretty decent team. But it doesn't do justice to the drama UCF created for itself at times.

The Knights led South Carolina by double digits at halftime before fading just enough to falter at home, 28-25. A couple of weeks later, they where the ones charging back from behind on the road; they let Louisville go up, 28-7, midway through the third quarter but erupted for 31 points on their final five possessions to steal a stunning 38-35 win. They crushed UConn and Rutgers to make the overall scoring margins pretty satisfactory but had to hold on for dear life against a decent Houston team and bad Temple, USF, and SMU teams.

Their reliance on passing-downs conversions and big defensive plays made them capable of high heights and low lows. It almost caught up to them on multiple occasions but never did. They held serve, and the Louisville upset held up well through the end of the year.

Baylor's season to date

A couple of months ago, talking only about Baylor's conference title, as opposed to something greater, would have felt like a bit of a letdown. The Bears began the season 9-0, and thanks to late losses by other undefeated teams -- Alabama, Ohio State, etc. -- an undefeated Baylor squad would have indeed reached the national title game.

Instead, a banged-up team fell inside a frigid, hostile Boone Pickens Stadium on November 23. Oklahoma State ended Baylor's national hopes with a 49-17 romp, but thanks to Oklahoma's upset of OSU and the fact that Baylor won out against TCU (barely) and Texas (comfortably), the Bears somewhat backed into the Big 12 title regardless.

For the season as a whole, the Bears were easily the Big 12's best team. They scored 69 or more points in five of their first six contests and, despite injuries, still averaged 42 points per game in the final five. And while the defense regressed upon the loss of star linebacker Bryce Hager, the full-season numbers still represent a staggering turnaround; Baylor ranked 79th in Def. F/+ in 2012 and 15th in 2013.

In so many ways, Baylor and Texas A&M switched bodies this year. A&M was the team with the albatross for a defense, while Baylor was the team with an aggressive D capable of taking advantage of desperate opposing offenses.

Baylor ranked as high as second in the F/+ rankings this season before fading to seventh late in the year. The Bears are now closer to full-strength than they have been for quite a while, however.

Data dump

Team Record BCS F/+ Rk Line Off F/+ Rk Def F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
Central Florida 11-1 15 24 14 48 18
Baylor 11-1 6 7 -17 5 15 90
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
UCF Offense 25 6 10 15 23 13 28
Baylor Defense 27 21 26 29 9 43 13
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
UCF Offense 15 79 34 112 60 115 4
Baylor Defense 22 15 27 9 57 53 91
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
Baylor Offense 3 8 16 2 6 2 78
UCF Defense 67 112 108 63 74 4 78
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
Baylor Offense 34 25 69 31 29 39 40
UCF Defense 100 90 2 4 90 92 40
Field Position Adv. FG Efficiency Punt Efficiency Kickoff Efficiency Punt Return Efficiency Kick Return Efficiency
UCF Special Teams 27 18 93 1 82 35
Baylor Special Teams 16 82 98 65 88 39

UCF's biggest advantages

UCF has as good a chance as anybody of stopping Baylor's explosive drives. The stats tell you what you would expect: Baylor's offense is absurdly explosive, the second-best in the country at scoring quickly. And against UCF (just like almost anybody else), the Bears will have some quick scoring drives.

But while UCF's defense is deficient in some areas, the Knights are quite strong at preventing said quick drives. Safeties Clayton Geathers and Brandon Alexander (combined: 7.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions, 16 pass break-ups, three forced fumbles) are outstanding last lines for this aggressive defense, and UCF manages to combine a backfield presence (fourth in Stuff Rate, 50 non-sack tackles for loss) with steadiness in the back.

You can peck away at the defense, but it will get its shots in, and it could make some stops along the way. We'll see how UCF handles the uniqueness of a healthy Baylor attack, with two ridiculous big-play threats lined up wide and track-speed running backs ready to split you up the middle if you get spread out too far, but the Knights have passed big-play tests thus far.

If special teams matters, that's good for UCF. Sean Galvin is among the nation's best kickoff specialists, booting 23 touchbacks in 65 kicks, and the kick coverage unit is allowing fewer than 20 yards per return. Combine that with Shawn Moffitt's quality place-kicking (perfect on PATs, 16-for-17 on field goals under 40 … though you probably don't want to be attempting too many field goals against Baylor) and a solid return game (Rannell Hall returning kicks and J.J. Worton returning punts), and you've got a special teams unit that could be worth a few points.

Blake Bortles is a passing-downs magician. UCF's standard-downs offense is solid, ranking 25th overall and featuring a decent balance of run and pass. The run game has two strong weapons, with the emergence of big freshman William Stanback to complement Storm Johnson, and three different targets (Hall, Worton, and Breshad Perriman) averaging at least 8.9 yards per target on standard downs.

But junior quarterback Bortles has quickly moved up the Draft charts -- expect announcers to pound you over the head with that one during the game -- in part because of his ability to make plays when UCF falls behind schedule. UCF ranks sixth in Passing Downs S&P+, with Bortles completing 62 percent of his passes to Hall and Worton (at 9.1 yards per target) on such downs and finding Perriman for more than 21 yards per completion once or twice per game. UCF does a wonderful job of picking up blitzes and giving Bortles time to look downfield, and he does a similarly wonderful job of finding players.

Baylor is fast and aggressive but doesn't necessarily come after the quarterback well, at least when taking rates and opponents into account. If Bortles has time, he could do some damage, both demoralizing the BU defense a bit and keeping the BU offense off the field.

Baylor's biggest advantages

Bortles might have to be a passing-downs magician. Like UCF, Baylor's defense is adept at stopping rushes in the backfield. The Bears rank ninth in Stuff Rate, and while the UCF offensive line is pretty good at getting a push, it's leaky, ranking just 112th in Stuff Rate. (Storm Johnson dances a little bit too much at times, too, which hurts these numbers.)

If Baylor's aggressive front is making first-down stops, Bortles should be able to make up ground. But if you face too many second-and-12s, it's going to catch up with you, especially if linebacker/stabilizer Hager is back in the middle of the defense for Baylor.

Baylor is consistent enough in its ability to make plays near the line that it is quite difficult to move the ball methodically. The Bears rank 13th in preventing methodical drives, swarming and punishing conservative offenses. Nickel back Sam Holl is used aggressively throughout the field (10 tackles for loss, seven passes defensed), corner Demetri Goodson has almost as many defensed passes as tackles (which suggests he's not letting his man catch the ball very often), and linebacker Eddie Lackey has become the primary hits-maker near the line.

UCF has a reasonably balanced offense, but the magnitude and volume of negative plays will be the key. Even magicians can only pull so many rabbits out of hats.

This is evidenced by UCF's occasional offensive struggles. The Knights were volatile in 2013, averaging 6.9 yards per play against Louisville but only 4.1 against Memphis, and 8.6 vs. Temple but 5.2 vs. South Florida. That's how you almost beat South Carolina and almost lose to ... lesser teams.

UCF's defensive line can be pushed around. As it has for much of the O'Leary era, UCF has lived off of aggressive plays near the line of scrimmage.

This year, the Knights have attempted to reach a happy medium: solid speed on the outside (end Miles Pace is 242 pounds; outside linebackers Troy Gray, Sean Maag, Michael Easton, and Justin McDonald average 199.5) with beef on the interior. Starting tackles E.J. Dunston and Demetris Anderson each weighs in a hair over 300 pounds, and star middle linebacker Terrance Plummer is not lacking for size.

But the balance is still a bit off. UCF can't rush the passer very well, and while the Knights frequently get into your backfield, when they don't, they are probably getting pushed a few yards downfield. And while this Baylor line isn't amazing, it's big and meaty. Guards Cyril Richardson and Desmine Hilliard go at least 6'4, 330 each.

This offense really is ridiculous. The term "video game stats" is painfully cliché now, but it's hard to figure out another way to describe what Baylor's offense was doing before Tevin Reese and company got hurt.

Reese, who missed the final four games of the season with a wrist injury, was averaging a ridiculous 15.8 yards per target and 25.0 yards per catch. Without Reese, Antwan Goodley's numbers sank a bit, but he still finished the season at 12.9 yards per target and 19.5 yards per catch. Of the 299 FBS players targeted at least 50 times in 2013, Reese ranked a distant first in yards per target. Goodley ranked seventh. It's unfair to have both of these guys in a single receiving corps. And Reese is expected to return against UCF.

It's equally unfair to combine these two with Lache Seastrunk, Shock Linwood, and a running back unit that also had its depth tested late in the year. Though left tackle Spencer Drango is still out, Baylor is nearly full-strength at this point, and a full-strength Baylor offense, with its speed and nearly unmatched tactics and aggressiveness, is almost untouchable.

If you can take away the deep ball and still man the middle of the field reasonably well, and if you can force Baylor to dink-and-dunk and remain patient, there's no guarantee that the Bears will do so effectively. Baylor ranks only 78th in Methodical Drives, after all. But nobody was able to do that to Baylor when the Bears had their full arsenal.

UCF is going to have to force a couple of turnovers, make a few other stops, and hope that its offense can score 45 points. Maybe the Knights can pull that off, but the margin for error is minuscule.

Overreactions for 2014

We tend to overreact to particularly positive or negative bowl results when it comes to projecting forward for the next season. How might we overreact to this game?

There is almost no senior presence on the UCF defense, a unit that sank from 42nd to 48th in Def. F/+ this season. O'Leary has a long history of producing solid defenses, and he should be able to do so again next year with a well-seasoned unit.

The question is whether the offense can match its recent output, and with every top-10 Draft projection we see for Bortles, that becomes less likely. The UCF skill positions are almost completely devoid of seniors as well (the line has three senior starters), but it would be difficult to put another top-20 unit on the field with no Bortles. At least, that's how we're all going to perceive it.

If the UCF defense keeps Baylor around 35 points and Bortles has a great game and announces his return to school in 2014, UCF should be a top-15 or top-20 team to start next year. But without Bortles, it will be difficult for the Knights to generate the same amount of attention, fair or not.

As for Baylor, the bowl might not matter much. We're already seeing signs of Baylor being placed in or near the preseason top 10 next fall, and that's before we find out how many ridiculously talented juniors -- quarterback Bryce Petty (who's said he's coming back), Seastrunk, Goodley -- might go pro in addition to seniors like Reese, Richardson, Lackey, Holl, safety Ahmad Dixon, and Goodson. We seem to be under the assumption that Baylor is here to stay as a top-20 caliber program, no matter who comes and goes.


F/+ Projection: Baylor 40, UCF 31
Win Probability: Baylor 74%

How long can UCF keep up, from a big-play perspective? Big plays are the name of the game for most college football teams, but Baylor has distilled big-play football down to its essence. The Bears will break off 20-, 30- or whatever-yard gains. They will make stops in the backfield. They will play more aggressively than you, and if you lose your will, you're done.

UCF can keep up in this regard, at least for a while. The Knights have two big, strong running backs, a trio of big-play receivers, and a quarterback who can distribute the ball well. They also have stat hogs on defense that rack up TFLs and pass break-ups almost as well as Baylor does.

The Knights can do a lot of the things Baylor does, but the story for 2013 has been margin for error. They don't always make big plays until they have to. When healthy, Baylor makes them in the beginnings, middles, and ends of games.

UCF's good to very good. But Baylor is often great. And that should make the difference in this one.

About the Author

Bill Connelly grew up a fan of the Miami Dolphins (post-1970s glory), Pittsburgh Pirates (ditto), Portland Trailblazers (ditto again) and Missouri Tigers. That he still enjoys sports at all shows both severe loyalty and a potential personality disorder. He spends his evening playing with excel sheets and watching DVR'd football games from ESPN Classic. See more of his work at Rock M Nation, Football Outsiders and Football Study Hall.