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December 26, 2012

Previewing BU: The Holiday Bowl

What: Baylor (7-5) vs. No. 17 UCLA (9-4), 35th Annual
Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl
When: 8:45 p.m. CST Thursday
Where: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego
Betting line: UCLA -1
Series history: First meeting
> Baylor's game notes

It's a battle of the Bears in the 2012 Holiday Bowl with Baylor facing UCLA for the first time in school history. This could be a bit like the 2011 Alamo Bowl -- except the roles may be reversed. Last year it was a ranked Baylor team trying to hold off the challenge from the Pac 10. This year, it's a ranked Pac 12 team that will hope to slow down Baylor's offense and prevent the upset.

Below, Sicemsports.com's Todd Wills (publisher), Kevin Lonquist (Senior Writer) and Jake Shaw (staff writer) break down all the game's matchups, as well as predict how the game will unfold.

Baylor BearsEdgeUCLA Bruins
Baylor DBs
The secondary caught fire in the final three games, collecting five interceptions to push the season total to 18 as a team, good for 10th in the nation. The return of Mike Hicks from an injury solidified this unit. This will be the final game for Hicks and CB Chance Casey, who's had an up and down career. If he continues his downward trend, K.J. Morton appears to be healthy again and could take Casey's place. Joe Williams will start at the opposite corner and Sam Holl will man the other safety spot. Both safeties are backed up by freshmen.
Strength of advantage:

Baylor has often lost sight of opposing TEs, but the Bears will have to key on UCLA's Joseph Fauria, the team's second-leading receiver (40-531) and clearly the top red-zone target. Fauria has 11 receiving touchdowns, nine more than the next highest player, WR Shaquelle Evans (53-795), who's the team's leading receiver. The strength of the running game and the dual-threat ability of QB Brett Hundley means UCLA throws it only 44 percent of the time, but the Bruins are very solid in the passing attack.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Baylor's defensive backs have been much better over the final third of the season. They must maintain their solid play in order to not be big underdogs in this matchup. UCLA has a balanced passing game that uses its tight ends and running backs just as much as its receivers and will test every area of the defensive backfield.
Baylor LBs
The linebackers looked like a strength to start the season, slumped mid-year, but turned it on to become arguably the strength of the defense -- especially if you group NB Ahmad Dixon in the group. MLB Bryce Hager finished the season as the leading tackler and proved strong against the run and on blitzes, while OLB Eddie Lackey emerged as the team's biggest playmaker, intercepting four passes, two returned for touchdowns. Baylor needs to continue to be aggressive with their linebackers to help its defensive line create pressure.
Strength of advantage:
Johnathan Franklin had such a strong start to the season that he was at one point a Heisman contender. He rushed for a nation-leading 541 yards in the first three games. Though his pace slowed a bit, his 1,700 rushing yards still ranks him eighth overall in the country. It's the senior's second 1,000-yard season in his career after coming 24 yards short of the mark last fall. It's just about Franklin or bust for UCLA, though QB Brett Hundley (365 yards, 9 TDs) will take off on runs when a lane is there. His rushing totals would be a lot higher if not for his yardage lost to sacks. Look for WR Damien Thigpin to get involved in the running game either in the backfield or on reverses.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Though Baylor's defense made huge strides late in the year, the defense allowed more than 200 yards to its final two opponents. Baylor, ranked 90th in the country in stopping the run, will have its hands full against one of the top running backs in the nation.
Baylor DL
It seemed like a desperate move, but the defensive line started coming together when Gary Mason Jr. was moved from the outside to defensive tackle. Next to Nick Johnson, those two have helped Baylor improve in the interior. Starting on the outside once again will be Terrence Lloyd and Chris McAlister, who give up a little size on the edge but are speed rushers who have improved at finding gaps on stunts and blitzes.
Strength of advantage:
Only two teams (fellow Pac 12 teams Colorado and Washington State) gave up more sacks than the UCLA offensive line did this year. Opposing teams sacked UCLA's QBs 46 times in 13 games this year, an average of 3.5 sacks per game and a loss of 266 yards on the season. UCLA is set to start three freshmen, one sophomore and a senior in the Holiday Bowl.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Baylor only had 13 sacks this season, six fewer than last year, and only seven of those have been by defensive linemen. However, with the struggles of the UCLA offensive line this year, this matchup is about even. It's weakness against weakness. If either of these units is a clear winner Thursday night, their team's chances of winning greatly increases.
Baylor QBs/WRs/TEs
Baylor coach Art Briles never passes up an opportunity to add a wrinkle to this passing game. So it will be something to look for throughout the game. Although he didn't win the Biletnikoff award, Terrance Williams led the nation in receiving yards (1,764) and Tevin Reese nearly reached 1,000 (889). Quarterback Nick Florence (387.7) leads the nation in total offensive yards. The key for him will be to secure the football.
Strength of advantage:
The Bruins took a hit a couple of days ago when safety Tevin McDonald was suspended for a violation of team rules. That could really hurt because he was second on the team in tackles and recovered a couple of fumbles. UCLA's pass defense was pretty respectable, allowing a little more than 250 yards per game, considering there are several pretty wide open passing attacks in the PAC 12 including Arizona, USC and Washington. That unit also collected 15 interceptions. Cornerback Sheldon Price and safety Andrew Abbott led the way with four apiece.
THE BOTTOM LINE: As we mentioned throughout the year, it really doesn't matter which secondary this passing attack faces, Baylor will have the edge. The tempo is faster than what the PAC 12 teams demonstrated.
Baylor RBs
You have to like Lache Seastrunk's approach and flat out claiming he's going to win the 2013 Heisman Trophy. Well, if he has a 2013 close what he had in November, he should be in the race. Seastrunk was freed up and rushed for most of his 874 yards that month. When he gets in the open field, look out. But Glasco Martin has served as a nice change-of-pace back. He consistently delivered in short-yardage situations.
Strength of advantage:

The Bruins will base out of a 3-4. This unit flies to the football. It allowed only 154 yards per game and 4.1 yards per carry. Eric Kendricks is the heart and soul of this defense. He leads this team with 137 tackles. Outside linebacker Anthony Barr is also an offensive line's dilemma. He has a team-leading 20.5 tackles for loss and team-leading 13.5 sacks, more than Baylor has as a team.
THE BOTTOM LINE: This is where Baylor really has to establish itself. Even as physical as Stanford rushes the football, the Cardinal averaged only 4.0 yards per carry in the PAC 12 championship game.
Baylor OL
Baylor's offensive line has developed into a very solid group, helping the Bears to a Bowl Subdivision-leading 578.8 yard per game. The Bears are one of four teams in the top 20 in the nation in passing and rushing. Baylor's offensive line opened up gaping holes early in the season, but it took the infusion of Lache Seastrunk to boost the rushing numbers. The Bears have rushed for at least 250 yards in the last five games. Left guard Cyril Richardson is an All-Big 12 selection. Center Ivory Wade and right guard Cameron Kaulfhold will play in their final games. The young tackle tandem of Spencer Drango and Troy Baker are proven commodities after 12 games.
Strength of advantage:

The Bruins' defensive line has made a huge turnaround under Jim Mora Jr. and first-time defensive line coach Angus McClure, who brought in a martial art experts to work on technique last spring. It worked. The Bruins were 96th against the run and 112th in sacks national in 2011. They enter the Holiday Bowl seventh nationally in sacks, 15th in tackles for a loss and 54th against the run. The Bruins have 43 sacks this season. Linebacker Anthony Barr leads the team with 13.5 sacks. But defensive end Cassius Marsh has 7.5 and DE Datone Jones six.
THE BOTTOM LINE: UCLA is much improved up front, but still middle of the pack nationally against the run and that could spell doom against the Bears' offensive front and Seastrunk and Glasco Martin.
Baylor Special Teams
UCLA Special Teams
Baylor placekicker Aaron Jones had a shaky finish and is just 16 of 27 on field goal attempts this season. But as Art Briles likes to say, "he's our kicker. He's the only one we have." So Baylor will trust Jones to come through against UCLA. Jones has a 44 percent touchback rate and the Bears have allowed one kick return for a touchdown. Punter Spencer Roth had a more than solid year with a 44-yard average and only nine punts returned. The return game was blah this season, but there is speed with Levi Norwood and Darius Jones and Antwan Goodley is a playmaker with the ball in his hands.
Strength of advantage:

The Bruins have been inconsistent on special teams. Placekicker Ka'imi Fairbairn has a big leg, and made 14 of 20 field-goal tries this season, but only one from 40 yards or more. Fairbaim missed a game-tying 52-yard field goal to tie the Pac-12 championship game. Stanford lost 27-24 to earn a Rose Bowl trip. He did make a 33-yard field goal at the gun to give the Bruins a 45-43 victory over Arizona State. UCLA isn't a threat in the return game, but watch out for its kick and punt block units. The Bruins blocked six kick attempts (three field goals and three punts) in the last three weeks of the season
THE BOTTOM LINE: This is another close one and neither team stands to win the game in special teams, unless UCLA blocks a kick. Baylor has been solid in that department and gets the slight edge.
SicEmSports.com's Predictions
TODD: The Holiday Bowl stands for the most exciting bowl game of the season, no matter who the sponsor is for the game. San Diego means great weather and a great atmosphere for a football game. Both offenses are sensational. The defenses - improving. It should be a close game; turnovers will be huge. Baylor's running game with Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin will be the difference. Baylor 44, UCLA 30.

KEVIN: This has the chance to be one of the highest scoring bowl games of the bowl season. Both teams have great playmakers at quarterback. Turnovers are always a key. Plus, bowl games are always odd because the team you see in November could rarely resemble the one you see in December. This is a game where Baylor nickel back Ahmad Dixon has to be all over the place, especially against UCLA's Brett Hundley. But I think Baylor's pace may bother the Bruins a little too much. Baylor 47, UCLA 42.

JAKE: The best team doesn't always win bowl games -- it usually comes down to which teams want it more. Often the higher-rated teams are no shows, and that could've been the case for UCLA, which was a narrow upset away from going to the Rose Bowl. I don't think UCLA looks at this as a consolation prize, however. Being the first year under Jim Mora Jr., I think UCLA wants this game just as badly as Baylor. More is trying to rebuild this program and knows a bowl victory is another step forward. And since UCLA, on paper, appears to be the more complete team, I think the Bruins hold off the Bears for the Holiday Bowl win, 44-38.

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