Fiesta Bowl has makings of a classic

First thoughts ...

The 2012 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, aka the January NFL Combine, could have as many as five first-round draft picks on the field when the Stanford Cardinal and Oklahoma State Cowboys meet on Jan. 2.

Four of them come from Stanford: quarterback Andrew Luck, offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro and possibly tight end Coby Fleener.

Oklahoma State boasts – hands down -- the nation's best wide receiver in Justin Blackmon. He has 113 catches, 1,336 yards and 15 touchdowns. The Cardinal have seen Blackmon-esque wide receivers this season -- Juron Criner, Michael Floyd, Robert Woods, etc. Big, fast, physical wide receivers who can use their bodies to create separation. But seeing players like Blackmon isn't the same as seeing Blackmon.

“The first time I saw him getting ready for Arizona, I put on the Oklahoma State game,” Stanford head coach David Shaw explained. “I’m trying to watch Arizona’s defense but I kept watching Justin. I had to go back to the sheet that had all of the heights and weight on it. Is he really that big? Can he be that big and that fast and that quick? A guy that will catch a 50-yard post and then come back again on the next play and it doesn't look like he's out of breath. He's a phenomenal athlete and an outstanding football player.”

The Cardinal have seen Weeden-esque quarterbacks before -- Nick Foles, Matt Barkley, etc.; quarterbacks with arms who can deliver with pinpoint accuracy. But seeing quarterbacks like Brandon Weeden isn't the same as seeing Weeden.

Oh yeah … did I mention they have Blackmon?

“That guy wearing No. 81 is something special,” Shaw said. “And the combination of those two guys is formidable. It has been. They have other guys. They have good running backs and other wide receivers that make big plays also. But Justin Blackmon I think is a special, special player. Being who I am, that's where my eye gravitates towards when I watch a team like this. I studied receivers for so long in the NFL. This guy is ideal. He's what you're looking for.”

We have a month to pore over statistics, scrutinize every position and every individual battle. But my first thought is that this is an incredibly even matchup.

  • Both teams have marquee quarterbacks.

  • Both teams have strong passing games – a clear edge to Oklahoma State’s receivers and a clear edge to Stanford’s tight ends.

  • Both teams have strong running games, though the Cardinal are a little more balanced and methodical.

  • Both have defenses that have taken their share of criticism, but ultimately make plays when they need to.

Of all of the BCS bowl games, this is the headliner. It might not be for the national championship -- both teams had a shot at it, though Oklahoma State has the bigger gripe -- but at first glance this looks to be the most entertaining game on the docket. If my DVR has space for only one of the BCS bowl games, this is the one I'd record.

“I think this game is going to be great for college football,” Shaw said. “I think it's going to be exciting. It has a lot of what you're looking for ... You've got one of the best teams in the nation, won their conference. Have an outstanding quarterback, outstanding receiver and an outstanding system; an opportunistic defense that gets turnovers and plays at a fast tempo with a lot of speed.

“Then you have this little team from the West Coast that runs the football with a prototypical quarterback with a balanced offensive attack and attacking style defense. I think it's going to be exciting. I think it's going to be one of the best bowl games this year.”

Question from reporter: Do you think it will be better than the national championship?

Shaw, with a laugh: “I didn't say that.”

Question from reporter: Will it be higher scoring?

Shaw, with a bigger laugh: “I didn't say that, either.”

Shaw doesn’t have to say it. We’re all thinking it.