Two teams in the national title picture for much of the season will collide in Glendale on January 2nd, as the Stanford Cardinal and Oklahoma State Cowboys square off in the 41st edition of the Fiesta Bowl.
David Shaw's first season with the Cardinal was a highly successful campaign, as Stanford finished the year at 11-1. Unfortunately for Shaw, his first season at the helm is likely All-American quarterback Andrew Luck's last with the team, as Luck is set to move on to the NFL.
Stanford hovered around the top few spots in the national polls all season long and perhaps missed out on a golden opportunity to play for the national title with a 53-30 loss at the hands of Pac-12 champion Oregon. After the lone loss, the Cardinal were able to post wins over both California (31-28) and Notre Dame (28-14) to close out the regular season. It is the first time in school history that Stanford has posted back-to-back 11-win campaigns.
This game marks Stanford's 23rd bowl appearance. The Cardinal hold a 10-11-1 record in the postseason and are playing in their second straight BCS Bowl game following a 40-12 rout of Virginia Tech in last year's Orange Bowl.
Shaw likes the fact that the bowl game is relatively close to home.
"I know a lot of our alumni were very excited about being a little closer to home. The best thing about it is last year they traveled across the country (to Miami). Our fans are excited. This team has had an outstanding year and we've had a lot of support and hopefully we will have a lot of support at the stadium and it sounds like we will."
Mike Gundy's Cowboys also won 11 games this season and also had one slip up, as OSU inexplicably lost to a huge underdog in Iowa State, 37-31 in mid November. Oklahoma State rallied though and made light work of rival Oklahoma (44-10) to earn the Big 12 crown and then had to sit and watch the last BCS poll to come out, leaving the Cowboys just percentage points away from a spot in the national title game.
OSU is playing in a bowl game for a school-record sixth straight season. The Cowboys are 13-8 all-time in postseason action. Oklahoma State's only prior visit to the Fiesta Bowl resulted in a 16-6 win over BYU in 1974. Last season, the Cowboys blasted Arizona, 36-10 in the Alamo Bowl.
This marks the first-ever meeting between these two programs on the gridiron.
One of the most productive teams in the country on the offensive side of the ball, Stanford finished up the regular season averaging 43.6 ppg on a hefty 480.9 yards of total offense.
The passing game was terrific under Luck's leadership, as the team netted 273.0 yards per game through the air. A Heisman finalist for the second straight season, Luck completed 70.0 percent of his throws, for 3,170 yards and 35 TDs.
Wideout Griff Whalen led the team in receptions this season with 49, for 664 yards and four TDs. He really stepped up when Chris Owusu (35 catches, 376 yards, two TDs) went down to injury. Tight end Coby Fleener (32 catches, 648 yards, 10 TDs) emerged as one of the nation's best relief valves and was an integral part of the gameplan each and every week.
Luck also benefited from an offensive line that was as good as any in the country. The guys up front definitely did their jobs in pass protection, allowing just nine sacks on the season.
With Luck at the helm, the Stanford ground game often times didn't get the attention it deserved from the opposition, despite rumbling for 207.9 yards per game. The Cardinal certainly made opponents pay for concentrating too much on their All-American signal-caller, especially tailback Stepfan Taylor, who rumbled for 1,153 yards and eight TDs this season.
The Cardinal lost an important cog on the defensive side of the football early on, when linebacker Shayne Skov was lost to a knee injury in September. The unit rallied however and played extremely well, especially against the run, limiting foes to a mere 90.3 ypg.
Linebackers Jarek Lancaster and Chase Thomas filled the void left by Skov's departure. Lancaster finished the season with a team-high 64 tackles, with 7.0 TFLs and 3.5 sacks. Thomas (51 tackles) was unstoppable, leading the team in TFLs (17.5) and sacks (8.5), en route to First-Team All-Pac-12 honors. Safety Michael Thomas led the way in the secondary with 61 stops and a team-high three INTs, earning all-conference honorable mention.
Not many teams have the firepower to match Stanford on the scoreboard, but Oklahoma State is definitely one of those few squads that can. The Cowboys finished second nationally in scoring (49.3 ppg) and passing (386.3 ypg) and third in total offense (557.0 ypg).
The offense was chock-full of All-Big 12 honorees at almost every position. Quarterback Brandon Weeden was a second-team selection after throwing for 4,328 yards and 34 TDs this season. It certainly didn't hurt to have a pair of All-Big 12 First-Team members along the offensive line and former Biletnikoff Award winner Justin Blackmon on the outside. Blackmon had another huge season at the wideout position, grabbing 113 passes, for 1,336 yards and 15 TDs.
Despite the ground game playing second fiddle in Stillwater, tailback Joseph Randle is a special talent. He picked up second-team honors this year after rushing for 1,193 yards and a whopping 23 TDs.
The OSU defense was a few steps behind the offense in terms of production this year and was downright awful at times. The team finished 107th in the nation in total defense (445.7 ypg) and struggled against both the run (84th in the nation at 180.1 ypg) and the pass (102nd in the nation at 265.6 ypg).
Still, this unit was able to force 41 turnovers, with 23 INTs and 19 fumble recoveries.
Sophomore safety Daytawion Lowe led the team in tackles with 88 this season. He also recorded two sacks, one INT, one fumble recovery and three forced fumbles. Junior cornerback Brodrick Brown (59 tackles) was the ballhawk in secondary with a team-high five INTs. Senior defensive end Jamie Blatnick (47 tackles) was the most disruptive playmaker up field, pacing the team in TFLs (11.5) and sacks (7.5).
Gundy is aware of the challenge that Stanford's offense presents.
"I think that this is the best football team that we've played. They are very good and we are all aware of what Andrew Luck brings to the table and their offense. Offensively, they are going to run the ball. They like to run downhill, they're going to play with the tight ends and fullbacks. They're going to run power, they're going to run counter, they run play-pass. Andrew does a great job of getting the ball in the flat to his fullbacks and dropping the ball off to underneath coverage. He's obviously very efficient."