PHOENIX, Ariz. – The Baylor players and coaches stepped off their plane Thursday afternoon where they were greeted by a mass of Tostitos Fiesta Bowl officials, a mariachi band and bowl queens.
It was clear the Bears weren’t in Texas anymore.
Baylor coach Art Briles couldn’t stop smiling in his press conference minutes after the charter flight arrived from Waco. He knows how important the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl is, and how special it is to be there.
“We’re extremely excited for a variety of reasons,” Briles said. “We’re representing Baylor and the Big 12, and we take and feel a whole lot of responsibility for doing a great job in the bowl. Our guys are jacked, they’re ready, they’re excited. We know the crowd is going to be enthusiastic and energetic, and we are, too.”
While Briles understands how big of an achievement it was for the Bears to win their first Big 12 championship to earn the automatic BCS bowl spot, he knows it’s vital to finish the job and beat Central Florida.
“I’ve been coaching a long time, and it’s my first opportunity to play in a BCS game,” Briles said. “These guys have never had that opportunity, and Baylor has never been in that situation before. When you have the opportunity to do something, you take full advantage of it.”
After giving his team a few days off for Christmas, Briles put his players through a short workout before flying to Phoenix early Thursday afternoon. He could sense his players’ excitement as the plane got closer to landing.
This is Baylor’s fourth straight bowl after appearances in the 2010 Texas Bowl, the 2011 Alamo Bowl and the 2012 Holiday Bowl. But playing in a BCS bowl is another level.
“This is a BCS game, and it’s a big deal for us,” Briles said. “That was my whole deal when we were able to qualify for this game – and you do have to qualify. They’re not invites. You have to earn it.”
The Bears arrived in Phoenix about a half hour after Central Florida’s plane touched down after a four-hour flight from Orlando. Knights coach George O’Leary joked about the perfect 70-degree weather in Phoenix.
“It’s about 10 degrees hotter in Orlando, so we’re looking forward to the cool weather,” O’Leary said.
O’Leary is anxious to present his team on a big stage after winning the American Athletic Conference with an 8-0 record. Like the Bears, the Knights come into the Fiesta Bowl with an 11-1 overall record, and O’Leary believes it’s a great chance for a national audience to see what his program is all about.
“You can’t pay for the exposure that you get through a bowl like this,” O’Leary said. “You could see on the plane how excited our guys were to get here. Our guys couldn’t wait to get here and play the game and compete. That hasn’t changed since we got the announcement.”
The game will pit two of the best quarterbacks in the country in Baylor’s Bryce Petty and Central Florida’s Blake Bortles.
While Petty has already said that he’s returning for his senior year at Baylor, Bortles will make his decision following the Fiesta Bowl. Bortles is projected to be a first-round pick in the NFL draft if he chooses to go out. The 6-4, 230-pound junior has completed 68.1 percent of his passes for 3,280 yards and 22 touchdowns this season.
“Blake has size, speed and arm strength, and that’s a prerequisite for a quarterback,” O’Leary said. “He understands defenses and gets the ball in the right areas in coverages. He works at the game. He doesn’t get high or low and he keeps a poise about himself.”
Petty will be excited to have senior wide receiver Tevin Reese back in the lineup after he missed the last four games with a dislocated wrist. Baylor’s offense leads the nation with 53.3 points per game, but hasn’t been as explosive since Reese has been out.
“The first time he worked out since he got injured on Nov. 7 was this morning,” Briles said. “He’s a big-play guy. It adds a spark to our team without question. The main thing we’re concerned about is making sure he’ll be healthy, and he won’t have a chance to injure himself anymore. When he’s ready, able and healthy, he’s dangerous.”
Baylor will hold its first practice in Arizona on Friday morning and will continue to work out until the New Year’s Day game.
“We know we’re in for a dogfight, and that’s the way it should be,” Briles said. “You have two top 20 teams playing each other, it’s going to be a heck of a game.”