BCS Bowl Breakdown: Fiesta
On paper, Oklahoma-Connecticut is the biggest mismatch in BCS history
UConn's best chance is a big game from its best weapon, Jordan Todman
Landry Jones and the Sooners need to prove they can win on the big stage
No. 9 Oklahoma (11-2) vs. No. 25 UConn (8-4)
Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
There's no way to sugarcoat it: On paper -- or for entertainment purposes only in the betting lines -- Connecticut-Oklahoma is the biggest mismatch in BCS bowl history. (The line is 17, and who's quibbling?) Depending upon your perspective, the Huskies' late-season surge to the Big East championship and their first BCS berth despite an 8-4 record is either a travesty -- an indictment of the BCS system -- or a heartwarming story of program-building. On the other sideline, all Oklahoma did was win the Big 12 again and achieve its eighth BCS bowl berth in Bob Stoops' 12 seasons. Never mind the matchup; the Sooners' urgent task is to end their BCS bowl losing streak.
1. Run, Jordan Todman, run. You have to love the swagger from the nation's second-leading rusher. "Honestly," Todman said, "I think I can do everything." He'll probably need to. Connecticut's best chance is a big game from its best weapon. Expect the Huskies to feed him the ball early and often, because that's what they do. En route to 1,574 yards -- second only to Oregon's LaMichael James -- Todman averaged 27.5 carries. The 5-foot-9, 190-pounder runs well between the tackles, and he averages 5.2 yards despite defenses keying on him.
Oklahoma will do just that, in part because it's essential strategy, and in part because UConn's passing game isn't good (No. 112 nationally, averaging only 145 yards). The Sooners will load up against Todman and try to force quarterback Zach Frazer to pass. If that happens, Connecticut is in trouble; Frazer, who lost and later regained his job at midseason, has thrown five touchdown passes, with four interceptions, and has a 52.7-percent completion rate. But if Todman can get going against a run defense that's statistically very average -- if he produces something like his 37-carry, 222-yard performance in a huge win over Pittsburgh -- the Huskies might make this interesting. Even if it didn't result in many points, it would grind clock and keep Oklahoma's potent offense off the field.
2. The Sooners' BCS bowl drought. Since Stoops' arrival, Oklahoma has returned to its traditional elite status. But since winning the 2000 national championship, the Sooners are 1-5 in BCS bowls, with five straight losses (including three BCS championship games). The most spectacular/shocking loss was everybody's favorite upset: Boise State 43, Oklahoma 42 (OT) in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. A year later, back in Glendale, the Sooners were routed by underdog West Virginia. They're not fond of the story line, but they're well aware of it: "We deserve all the criticism," Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables recently told The Oklahoman. "And I don't know about anybody else, but I'm (angry) about it. ... That's the face of this program until we change it."
Changing it has been an intense focus of Oklahoma's preparations. And changing it extended to the bowl experience. In an attempt to shake things up, the Sooners took advantage of their status as the home team to switch hotels and practice sites. "Just switching up the scenery," Oklahoma safety Quinton Carter said. "Not going to the same place kind of puts you in a different mode."
3. Keeping up with Jones. For all the gaudy statistics, Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones has been knocked for not playing well when it counts. Although he ranks No. 2 nationally in passing yards and could overtake the leader with a 340-yard day (10 yards better than his average), his playmaking ability in critical moments has been a question. At midseason, one newspaper wrote a story examining the "it factor" some quarterbacks supposedly possess -- and whether Jones had "it." Some of the criticism should have abated after Jones' late dramatics in the Sooners' shootout win at Oklahoma State, or his 342-yard performance in the Sooners' Big 12 Championship win over Nebraska (a pretty fair pass defense), but it's a lingering story line.
We could have a healthy debate over how big this game is, but it's big enough to Oklahoma (see the previous point), and to Jones. And there's opportunity for a big performance. Connecticut hasn't faced an up-tempo passing attack like Oklahoma's, or an accurate quarterback like Jones throwing to a big-play receiver like All-American Ryan Broyles (or to running back DeMarco Murray, or to freshman flash Kenny Stills, or to several others). A strong performance against Connecticut might not silence all of the naysayers; Jones is following a legend in Sam Bradford, so the standard has been set pretty high, and Oklahoma fans are among college football's most demanding. But it would continue the positive momentum created against Oklahoma State and Nebraska into next season, when Jones will be a junior and Oklahoma will be on everyone's short list of national title contenders. If Jones regresses, however, the good vibes will dissolve into more of the same questions.
Oklahoma is playing in its fifth Fiesta Bowl (three in the last five years). Connecticut is playing in its fifth bowl game.
SI.com NFL draft analyst Tony Pauline shares his thoughts on the top pro prospects in this matchup:
Oklahoma: RB DeMarco Murray -- Scouts rated Murray as the top senior running back entering the season, and Murray lived up to his billing. He has the ability to make several defenders miss over the course of a single run and is exceptional catching the ball out of the backfield. Most importantly for Murray, he remained healthy this season, something he had not done the past two years. Grade: Second-round prospect.
Connecticut: RB Jordan Todman* -- Todman turned in a terrific campaign this season after becoming the Huskies' fulltime back. Scouts consider him a better pure ball-handler than former UConn star Donald Brown. Todman is incredibly elusive handling the ball and displays the ability to create yardage where seemingly none exists. Grade: Second- to third-round prospect.
If only for the sake of riveting football on New Year's Day, it would be fun to watch Connecticut control the clock, hang around and give the Sooners (and viewers) a good game. Three fantastic tricks followed by a marriage proposal would be fun, too. The Huskies' rapid rise since moving to the Football Bowl Subdivision (I-A) is a neat story with similarities to yes, Boise State. But the Sooners have heard enough about losing BCS bowl games -- especially that one. They'll never live down Boise, but they won't relive it. UConn is not Boise State. The mismatch is very real. The motivation should be, too. "We're trying to prove something, too -- that we can win a BCS game and a bowl game," Oklahoma defensive end Jeremy Beal said.
The Pick: Oklahoma 37, Connecticut 17
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