SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — The Fiesta Bowl missed its marquee matchup.
Left with little choice after the Orange Bowl took No. 5 Stanford, the Fiesta Bowl ended up selecting four-loss Connecticut to face Big 12 champion Oklahoma.
Instead of a showdown between two high-scoring offenses, it’ll be a traditional power playing New Year’s Day against a school known more for its basketball teams than its upstart football program.
“We really look at the rankings and the process, so we totally understand why Stanford has the opportunity; they certainly earned it,” Fiesta Bowl chairman Duane Woods said Sunday after the announcement. “But we’re very happy with our selection.”
The Fiesta Bowl has a knack for getting must-watch matchups, from the top-me-I’ll-top-you game between Boise State and the Sooners in 2007 to last year’s BCS-busters matchup between the Broncos and TCU.
No. 25 UConn (8-4) doesn’t exactly fit that mold, a hoops power coming from the East Coast and a conference that had a so-so year.
The Huskies shared the Big East title with West Virginia and Pittsburgh, earning the automatic BCS nod through a tiebreaker. UConn closed out the regular season by beating South Florida Saturday night, but its list of losses includes Temple of the Mid-Atlantic Conference, 4-8 Rutgers and a shutout at the hands of 6-6 Louisville.
The Huskies are 26th in the BCS standings and 17-point underdogs for the game at the University of Phoenix Stadium, but they’re not apologizing for anything.
“Don’t get on UConn for what the system is,” UConn coach Randy Edsall said. “We happened to win the conference and we’re deserving to be there. We didn’t back our way into it. We won our way into it.”
Oklahoma is in familiar territory.
The Sooners (11-2) captured their seventh Big 12 title — no conference rival comes close to that mark — by rallying from a 17-point deficit to send Nebraska off to the Big Ten with a 23-20 loss in the Big 12 championship game Saturday night.
Oklahoma finished seventh in the final BCS standings and should be up for a return to the Fiesta Bowl, where there haven’t been too many fond memories.
In the 2007 game, the Sooners were on the losing end of Boise State’s breakout moment, falling 43-42 as the Broncos hit them with a barrage of trick plays. Oklahoma was ranked third and a big favorite the following year against West Virginia, only to be overrun 48-28.
“It’ll be motivation, that’s for sure,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said.
This is a different year, though.
Coming off an average-for-them 2009, the Sooners returned to being a dominant force in college football this season. Oklahoma opened the season with six straight wins, overcame a midseason hiccup and won its final four games to win a third Big 12 title in four years.
The Sooners have one of the nation’s most prolific passers in Landry Jones (second nationally with 4,289 yards) and a physical, aggressive defense that swarmed opponents all season.
Besides, Oklahoma is on a bowl roll headed into this year’s Fiesta Bowl; it beat Stanford in last year’s Sun Bowl.
“We’re on a one-game winning streak, so I want you all to note that,” OU linebacker Travis Lewis said. “This is huge. We’ve got to finish. We’ve been talking all season about finishing. We’re on a pretty hot streak right now. I think all the players are satisfied that we finished strong but it’s not over yet. To cap this season off to win a bowl game, that would be awesome.”
Oklahoma’s fans figure to travel well to the desert.
The big question is whether Huskies fans will.
UConn is a solid draw during the postseason in men’s and women’s basketball, but all the way across the country for a football game? That might be asking a lot.
“It reminds me back when we had Boise State coming out for a major game and we had the same kind of discussion: How will Boise travel?” Woods said. “I can you tell you there’s that same energy in talking to UConn. They see this as a chance to get in the national light and get all their alums and fans out.”
Just like Boise State’s first Fiesta Bowl appearance, this could be a key point in UConn’s rise.
The Huskies have been in major college football less than a decade and joined the Big East in 2004. UConn has made a steady climb and fought through some difficult times, including the death of cornerback Jasper Howard last season.
The Huskies have played in four straight bowls, winning two, and overcame an 0-2 conference start this season to earn their first BCS bowl berth.
And yeah, they’re excited about it.
The team watched the BCS selection show in its $50 million football training complex across the road from the glorified high school stadium the team was playing in 10 years ago, and are ready to show everyone they belong in the spotlight with a program like Oklahoma.
“We’ve been through it all and sometimes when your back is against the wall is when you are the most dangerous,” UConn defensive tackle Kendall Reyes said. “I guess that’s the way our team is. Every time we’re backed up, we always fight back. We never give up.”
Oklahoma will certainly be ready.
The Sooners realize they’re facing a team that has the nation’s second-leading rusher in Jordan Todman (143 yards per game) and a lot to prove.
“Anytime you win your conference championship, you have character, you’re a good football team, they just won five games in a row,” Stoops said. “We get that and when you have to compete, you respect that.”
AP sports writer Jeff Latzke in Oklahoma City and writer Pat Eaton-Robb in Storrs, Conn., contributed to this story.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.