Fiesta Bowl + Heart of Dallas Bowl Preview
Fiesta Bowl + Heart of Dallas Bowl Preview
2014-01-01 12:00:00

Baylor's BCS debut and UNT's postseason return kick off 2014.

 By Jake Shaw

If the bowl season didn't have your attention already, surely Johnny Manziel and the Aggies grabbed it last night.

Manziel -- along with an opportunistic defense -- rallied the Aggies from a 21-point halftime deficit for a 52-48 win over Duke in last night's Chik-Fil-A Bowl, the latest chapter in his incredible career. That win evened the state's bowl record at 2-2 after Rice struggled in a big loss to Mississippi State.

But it's still not over. We've got two more games involving Texas teams today, both which we preview below.

UNLV (7-5/5-3 MWC) vs. North Texas (8-4/6-2)
11 a.m. Wednesday, ESPNU
The Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas

While the focus around the DFW metroplex has been the end of UNT's bowl drought, UNLV will end an even longer absence on Wednesday morning. In fact, UNT's four straight New Orleans Bowls appearances in the early part of this century match the all-time postseason trips by UNLV, including this game.

So for anyone who thinks there are too many bowl games, UNLV and UNT would say otherwise.

Aside from simultaneously ending long bowl droughts, these teams share at least one more trait. Both got career seasons from their senior running backs. UNT's Brandin Byrd eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in the season finale, getting to 1,023 on the season -- 223 more than his career high -- while rushing for 11 TDs. He had to overcome a slow start to get there. Byrd had only 186 after the first five games, including no yards on six carries in the 24-21 loss at Tulane.

That loss dropped UNT to 2-3 on the season, and it looked as if the Mean Green was on the same path as previous years. Byrd helped spark a midseason turnaround, however, rushing for 139 yards in a 34-7 win over MTSU. He would average 119 rushing yards over the final seven games, all but one of them wins.

Meanwhile, UNLV RB Tim Cornett's 1,251 rushing yards accounted for more than half of the team's 2,177 yards. He also earned 15 of the 25 rushing TDs. He averaged exactly 21 carries per game, and UNLV's unlikely to change that game plan in the bowl game.

But we might see how stubborn UNLV can be, since UNT is among the better teams in the nation at stopping it. UNT allowed just 125 rushing yards per game; teams averaged only 3.76 yards per carry. UNLV, conversely, was gashed by the run, allowing 5.2 yards per carry. UNLV was out-rushed by nearly 500 yards by its opponents.

And that's where these two teams seem most different. UNLV's offense is probably about even with UNT's. But the Mean Green defense is better enough that not only will UNT's bowl drought end -- so will its two-game bowl losing streak.

Spotlight matchup: North Texas LBs vs. UNLV RB Tim Cornett. As mentioned above, UNLV relies as heavily on its running game as North Texas. Cornett should get north of 20 carries in the game. But he'll have to contend with an excellent trio of North Texas linebackers, a unit headed by senior Zach Orr, a tackling machine. Orr's 113 tackles was a high for all Texas players this year, but he'll get a lot of help from fellow LBs Derek Akunne (86 tackles) and Will Wright (71).

Key Stat: 4, the number of interceptions thrown by UNLV starting QB Caleb Herring compared to 22 touchdown passes in 364 pass attempts. That number will be put to the test against a North Texas secondary that accounted for ??? of UNT's 17 interceptions this season.

Noteworthy statistical difference: Of the 33 trips by UNT's opponents into the red zone, only 20 times did the Mean Green allow a score. That 60.61 percentage rate ranks ??? in the nation. UNLV didn't have near the same success. Opponents scored on all but seven of their 39 trips into the UNLV red zone (82.05 percent), ranking the Rebels ??? out of 125 FBS teams.


The mob says: North Texas by 6.5
So says I: North Texas 31, UNLV 21


No. 15 UCF (11-1/8-0 AAC) vs. No. 6 Baylor (11-1/8-1 Bg 12)
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, ESPN
University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona

Around this time last year, Baylor was the hunter, not the hunted. The Bears rode a late-season surge to make the Holiday Bowl, where they summarily whipped Pac-12 runner-up UCLA. This season, Baylor often played the

The tables have turned on Baylor.

Central Florida enters the Fiesta Bowl as the program playing the "lack of respect" card. UCF is only in this bowl, some would contend, because it emerged as the best team in a weak American Athletic Conference, which remained an auto-qualifying BCS conference despite its recent renovations. But let's put that thought to rest right now.

Baylor is the favorite for a reason. It lost just one game in a down but still solid Big 12. It scored 59-plus points in more games than it didn't. Its offense showed no mercy, while the defense -- perhaps the most improved defense in the nation -- proved it could carry the team on the rare occasions the offense was off.

But UCF isn't the cinderella story you think it is, even if this relatively new program is, like Baylor, making its first BCS bowl appearance. Offensively, UCF compares very well to Baylor in many categories:
> While Baylor ranked second nationally in scoring drives that averaged 10-plus yards per play, UCF wasn't far behind at 13th nationally.
> Baylor ranked 8th nationally at getting "available yards" -- a statistic from that measures yards earned by the offense divided by the total number of yards available based on starting field position. But UCF ranked three spots better at No. 5.
> Overall, Baylor's offense -- adjusted to the strength of its schedule -- ranks 12th nationally, not that far ahead of No. 21 UCF.

The defensive similarities are there, too. Both forced a lot of turnovers (Baylor had 26 takeaways; UCF 25). Both limited opponents to 40 percent or less conversion rates on third downs. Neither team allowed its opponents to average 4 yards per carry during the course of the season.

So while the Fiesta Bowl features two unexpected teams that aren't quite traditional powers, it doesn't lack talented, efficient and explosive teams. And the gap between them seems to be slimmer than what's been portrayed.

That's why this game could be a surprise for anyone dismissing it -- because of the lack of "name" programs" -- as the least among the BCS games. I'm expecting a good game for almost the entirety. But I think Baylor's speed, both in its personnel and its offensive strategy, will eventually wear out UCF.

Spotlight matchup: Baylor DL vs. UCF OL. Central Florida has a ton of speed, a likely NFL first-round quarterback and an excellent running back. But despite all those dynamics, UCF's typical drive is more methodical than explosive. The Knights need their offensive line to make this happen, since clock-chewing drives would keep Baylor's offense off the field. Baylor is young in the middle, rotating two freshmen DTs, but experienced on the outside with two senior starting defensive ends. If this unit makes some big plays -- a sack here, a forced fumble there -- UCF's already slim margin of error will decrease even more.

Key Stat: 103, the number of penalties against Baylor this season, the most in the nation. Baylor averaged 8.6 per game compared to 4.8 per game by UCF< which only committed 58 penalties.

Noteworthy statistical difference: 28.8, the percent of Baylor's offensive drives that average 10 or more yards per play, the second highest percentage in the nation to Florida State's 28.9 percent. On the flip side, UCF ranks fourth nationally in preventing teams from putting together explosive drives. Only 5.8 percent of drives against the UCF defense averaged 10 or more yard, the fourth-best figure in college football.

The mob says: Baylor by 16.5
So says I: Baylor 48, UCF 30

Charting My Predictions:
Bowl picks straight up: 2-2
Bowl picks against the spread: 1-3
Season straight up: 87-33
Season against the spread: 56-62-2

All times CST; all rankings from the Current BCS Top 25; odds courtesy of these guys.


Jake Shaw is a special contributor to Contact him by email whether you loved, hated, were excited by or depressed by this column.

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