Thursday, December 27

Liberty Bowl - A Bowl With History

Fun fact: the Liberty Bowl is the oldest pre-Jan. 1 bowl still going. It began – fittingly – in Philly before moving to Atlantic City for a year and ending up in Memphis in 1965. In more recent times, it’s been home to some pretty good mid-major teams – most notably the mid-major BCS bowl of Louisville/Boise State back in 2004. Each of the last three has been decided by 8 points or less - Louisville/Boise St., a QB duel between Paul Smith and Paul Pinegar in 2005, and a Spurrier-style shootout victory for South Carolina last season. Of course, this game won’t be nearly as high-flying as that one was; this is the kind of game that would make old Big 10 fans proud, as neither of these teams can pass worth a damn.

Of course, this year and last year have been some mid-level SEC team facing off against a solid mid-major. Last year it wasn’t all bad, as has already been mentioned. Heck, the last three years of this bowl have all been within one score – this year could easily be the same. Fun fact: Mississippi State is 1-1 in the Liberty Bowl (6-6 overall), and UCF will play its first game in the Liberty Bowl (and second overall, losing 49-48 to Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl in ’05).

University of Central Florida (Coach Lawrence)

In the previous three seasons, UCF has finished 0-11, 8-5 (bowl loss on missed PAT!), and 4-8. This season they’re 10-3, fresh off a CUSA Championship blowout of Tulsa. According to George Bush’s view, that means they’re statistically indistinguishable from a .500 team like Louisiana-Monroe... if we replayed the season they’d be just as likely to finish with a losing record. According to Al Gore’s view, at this rate they’ll be winning over 30 games per season by 2015. I mean, was anyone else terrified when Congress briefly got involved with the BCS?

Back to the Knights, there is really just one thing you need to know about this team. They are Kevin Smith. Smith averages 188 ypg rushing – 11 ypg more than the #2 guy with #3 not even visible in his rearview – and 5.9 yards a pop. If KS were his own team, he’d rank #33 in rushing offense... as it is, the Knights are 10th.

Keys to Victory:
1. Victory begins and ends with KS. Okay, that works so much better with VY. Here’s what I’m saying... but the ball in Kevin Smith’s hands time and again. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be involved in the play at least somehow (playaction is fine) unless it’s a 3rd and 40 hail mary. Even then, halfback draws have been known to bust a 50 yarder.

2. Did we mention that Mississippi State gives up 159 ypg rushing? POUND SMITH, DAMMIT!

3. Miss State also prefers to run the ball, although they’re not nearly as good at it (135 ypg avg, but 173 in victory and 82 in defeat). That’s because their QBs – all three of them – really suck. The original starter has 9 INTs and just 1 TD, and the others are a little closer to mediocre but definitely not better than that.

Mississippi State (by Coach Pendley)

Sylvester Croom is a pretty good coach. Ignore the 16-30 record; Jackie Sherrill left the Bulldogs in shreds in 2003 (and that team wasn’t any good to begin with). Croom was basically dealt a hand of crap – turn this shoddy team with recruiting sanctions into a contender in one of the toughest divisions in the country. And amazingly, he did. After three consecutive 3-8 seasons, Croom rewarded his supporters with a 7-5 record – including 4-4 in-conference with wins over Auburn, Alabama, and Kentucky. Yeah, for most teams we’ll mock them for finishing 7-5, 4-4, but that’s often because they were expected to do much better than that – nobody expected a damn thing out of this team. When Lincoln Financial shows five of your games, that’s the sign that you’re supposed to go 4-8.

Of course, things won’t get any easier in the future for this Bulldog team – if all the coaches currently in the SEC West stay on their teams (always debatable with Tuberville), Croom may be one of the worst coaches in the division come 2008. That’s not an insult, though – Les Miles, Bobby Petrino, Tommy Tuberville, Houston Nutt (with a different team), and Nick Saban will all be coaching against Croom in the division. Yikes.

The 2007 Bullldogs were greater than the sum of their parts. Their offense was abysmal – think Anthony Dixon and that’s it – and they couldn’t do much on defense either. Heck, they allowed 29 more points than they scored all year. They can’t even punt, either (averaged just under 40 yards/punt). How’d they go 7-5? As odd as it sounds, pick sixes. INT returns for TDs served as less than the margin of victory in both wins over the ‘Bama teams (Alabama and Auburn), including a 99-yarder against Alabama. What also helped MSU was only allowing scores on 72% of their opponents’ red zone possessions – and 2/14 4th down conversions.

So what players do you want to watch? On offense, Anthony Dixon rushed for nearly 1,000 yards and 13 TDs on the season facing eight in the box on most downs. Jamayel Smith and Tony Burks are the team’s leading receivers; Burks doesn’t have his ungodly 24+ ypc like he did back in 2006, but 13.75 ypc isn’t terrible. Smith and Burks form most of the passing offense, averaging about 80 ypg combined between the two. QB Wesley Carroll is way better than the rest of the dreck lining up under center for the team – I’m lookin’ at you, Michael Henig.

On defense, DBs Anthony Johnson and Derek Pegues lead the team with 3 INTs each – including 3 TD returns between the two. DL Titus Brown led the team with 8 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss on the season.

Keys to Victory:
1: Force the big play on D. UCF’s QB Kyle Israel sucks. We all know that UCF isn’t going to do much through the air, but they’ll need to punish them when they do.

2: 100 yards for Dixon. Mississippi State is 3-1 when Dixon runs for over 100 yards – heck, they’re 5-1 when he tops 84 – but it’s bowl season, so you have to top your best. UCF has the best run defense in C-USA, which is kind of like having the best New Wave haircut, but someone’s gotta be #1.

3: Limit Smith to 125. Kevin Smith is the best RB that the Bulldog D has faced all year – and yes, I’m including McFadden in that. The good news is that MSU held McFadden to under 100 yards, so holding Smith to 125 would be an achievement.