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Cowboys, Cardinal in Fiesta Bowl

The Fiesta Bowl will have a marquee matchup in its first post-scandal game: No. 3 Oklahoma State vs. No. 4 Stanford.

The Fiesta Bowl had a dud of a game last year and nearly lost its BCS status after an investigation into financial improprieties.

Bowl organizers worked hard to restore its image and landed a golden game of the Cardinal and the Cowboys.

Oklahoma State (11-1) fell just short in its national championship bid, finishing third in the final BCS standings.

Stanford (11-1) lost its chance to play for the national title with a loss to Oregon, but will be playing in a BCS bowl for the second straight season.

The Jan. 2 game also will include two premier quarterbacks: Brandon Weeden of Oklahoma State and Stanford's Andrew Luck.

Last season, the Fiesta Bowl was left with a so-so matchup between Oklahoma and Connecticut.

The concern heading in was that it would be a blowout and that UConn, being so far away, wouldn't travel very well.

Both happened.

Oklahoma won in a rollover, 48-20, and Huskies fans didn't travel, the school selling just 5,000 of its required 17,500 tickets. The University of Phoenix Stadium was about 6,000 below capacity and fans weren't too excited to watch it on TV, either, with ratings down 22 percent from the year before.

The 2012 game had the potential to be best BCS bowl outside the national championship game.

It was all going to depend on the poll voters and the complicated BCS rankings.

If projections held up and LSU met Alabama in a rematch between SEC powers, the Fiesta figured to get its dream matchup of Oklahoma State and Stanford. Had Oklahoma State vaulted over the Crimson Tide to No. 2 in the BCS, well, the Fiesta Bowl would be left to scramble for someone to face Stanford.

The Fiesta got its fiesta, though Oklahoma State isn't too thrilled about it.

It's not for any disdain for the Fiesta. It's just that the Cowboys believed they deserved a shot at the national championship game.

They had a good argument.

Oklahoma State won it first outright conference title since 1948 — in the three-team Missouri Valley — and ended the season with a statement, routing rival Oklahoma 44-10 Saturday night.

The Cowboys had more quality wins than Alabama but took a big hit with a double-overtime loss to 6-6 Iowa State two weeks ago.

Still, the Cowboys believed their one-loss season was as good as Alabama's and said the Tide already had its shot at the top-ranked Tigers, losing 9-6 in overtime last month — in Tuscaloosa, no less.

Oklahoma State's loss could be a gain for the Fiesta Bowl after a difficult year.

President John Junker was fired in March for allowing excess spending, an apparent illegal system of political contributions and an effort to cover up the problems.

The Fiesta Bowl kept its spot in the BCS rotation, but was placed on a year's probation and fined $1 million.

The bowl hired former University of Arizona president Robert Shelton as its executive director and worked to repair its image while overhauling how the organization is run.

Landing two of college football's best teams for its 2012 game could certainly help in the recovery process.

Oklahoma State and Stanford had seasons that rank among the best in their histories, each coming within a loss of playing for a national championship. Their offenses are among the best in the country — the Cowboys were No. 3 nationally in total offense, the Cardinal 11 — and have playmakers all over the field.

And they have Weeden and Luck.

Barely an afterthought for the Heisman Trophy at the start of the season, Weeden inserted himself into the conversation with a stellar senior season.

A 28-year-old who played five years of professional baseball, Weeden broke his own school records with 4,328 yards passing and a completion rate of 72 percent. He also set single-season records for attempts (522) and completions (379), matched his record of 34 touchdown passes and finished fourth nationally with 352.75 yards of total offense per game.

Luck returned for his junior season after finishing as the runner-up to Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton last year.

The projected No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, Luck threw for 35 touchdowns this season to break his school record of 32 a year ago and set the Stanford career record of 80 TD passes in just three years.

He finished this season with 3,170 yards passing, a 70 percent completion rate and only nine interceptions — without having an elite wide receiver to throw to.

Those two and their talented teams could give the Fiesta Bowl just the boost it needed.