2007 Liberty Bowl Preview
by Josh Nagel
Central Florida (10-3) vs. Mississippi State (7-5)
Conference Matchup: Conference USA vs. SEC
Date: Dec. 29
Spread: Central Florida -2.5
This game provides several interesting angles, of course chief among them being the coming out party for Kevin Smith, Central Florida's running back who led the nation in rushing but failed to receive so much as an invitation to the Heisman Trophy ceremony. Smith put up eye-popping numbers with 2,448 yards and 29 TDs, yet he went largely ignored for recognition by the national media as players from mid-major schools often do. This will be his stage to prove to the country that his breakout season was no fluke and he is certain to get more national respect if he has monster game against a team from the SEC, which is generally recognized as the nation's toughest conference. If Smith and the Golden Knights are successful, they will spoil the other story in this game, which is the culmination of the rebuilding project at Mississippi State by Sylvester Croom. The coach took over a program that had fallen on hard times and has taken its share of lumps on the way back up. A season-opening 45-0 thumping by LSU did not make Bulldogs fans excited about this team's prospects, but they bounced back amid a brutal schedule to finish with a winning record and surprising wins against Alabama, Kentucky and Auburn, the latter two of which came on the road. They beat rival Mississippi, 17-14, in their final game to ensure the bowl bid and ensure the firing of Rebels coach Ed Orgeron. But the Golden Knights do not lack for momentum, either; they have won their last seven by an average of 19 points and came within three points of upsetting Texas in week 2.
Central Florida can cover if: the Golden Knights can prove their recent run of dominating victories wasn't entirely the product of meager competition in Conference USA. Kevin Smith had one of the most prolific rushing seasons in major college football history, averaging 188 yards per game, two touchdowns per game and 32 carries per game. Although he has been humble publicly, going as far as saying his team has "something more important" in its conference championship than the individual Heisman award, you would have to think he and his teammates would be a little motivated by the fact that not only was Smith not a candidate, but another running back, Darren McFadden, was getting the sympathy for finishing second. Smith and the Golden Knights certainly wouldn't mind having a good showing on the national stage, proving he belonged in the Heisman mix and providing the school with its first-ever 11-win season. Quarterback Kyle Israel also has thrown for more than 2,000 yards and 15 touchdowns against eight interceptions as the Knights have put up an average of 38 points per game. The Central Florida defense was suspect early in the season but, after yielding 62 points to South Florida in a loss, it has improved. UAB's 31 points was the most scored against UCF in the past seven weeks, and the Golden Knights won that game, 45-31.
Mississippi State can cover if: the Bulldogs decide that they are going to spoil Smith's turn in the national spotlight and take the stage for some recognition of their own. While its rush defense gives up 159 yards per game, just 66th nationally, that number has to be taken into perspective considering the strength of the players and teams Mississippi State has faced in the SEC, including Jacob Hester and LSU, Steve Slaton and West Virginia and McFadden and Arkansas. That's respectable defense against such a high level of competition. The Bulldogs also rank 10th nationally against the pass, allowing just 180 yards per game. However, they tend to plod along on offense and would prefer a grind-it-out, low scoring game as they average just 22 points per contest, which is among the worst in the nation. Anthony Dixon leads the rushing attack with 980 yards and 13 touchdowns while Christian Ducre has 467 yards. Quarterback Wesley Carroll has thrown for just 1,353 yards with nine touchdowns and six interceptions.
General Notes: The Knights are 4-1 ATS against teams with winning records, but just 9-24-1 ATS in their last 34 non-conference games. The Bulldogs are 9-3-1 ATS in their last 13 games as an underdog of three points or fewer.
Re: Liberty Bowl
UCF Knights (10-3) vs. Mississippi State Bulldogs (7-5)
Although the Liberty Bowl isn’t one of the major bowl games, it can certainly showcase some of college football’s lower level stars. Last year, Kevin Kolb got his showcase against South Carolina, while UCF running back Kevin Smith will get his chance against the Bulldogs. Smith needs 180 yards to surpass Barry Sanders all-time record for most rushing yards in a college football season – but the Bulldog defense isn’t going to give it up too easily.
Sizing Up UCF: When the Knights have the ball, you can expect a lot of Kevin Smith. Smith has racked up some monster carry totals this season, including a 46 carry effort against UTEP in the final regular season game of the year. Smith has 2,448 yards and 29 touchdowns on the year and the Bulldog defense wants to prevent him from reaching college football history. Look for the Knights to see several eight and nine man fronts in the box, which puts the emphasis on quarterback Kyle Israel to loosen things up. Israel isn’t a great quarterback, but he can complete passes and take some pressure off of Smith. When Israel throws, Rocky Ross and Kamar Aiken are his two weapons. The Knights defense isn’t anything special, but they ranked first in Conference USA in rush defense and second in points allowed per game. Additionally, this defense pressured quarterbacks and consistently forced turnovers – something the Bulldogs have been solid at doing and this game could turn on one turnover.
Sizing Up Mississippi State: You have to give a lot of credit to head coach Sylvester Croom for getting the Bulldogs into this bowl game. Croom was on the hot seat going into this year and he pulled his team together for a solid seven-win season. Although the Bulldogs were outgained in most of their victories this year, they just find a way to win games. True freshman quarterback Wesley Carroll showed tremendous growth throughout the year and made solid decisions as the year progressed. Although Carroll is an emerging passer, the offense will lean heavily on running back Anthony Dixon. Dixon will try to match Smith’s effort, but against a pretty sturdy Knight defense, the Bulldogs can’t win this game strictly on the running game. The Bulldog defense has done a good job of forcing turnovers and scoring touchdowns this season, which could be the difference in a close game. This unit ranks 28th in the NCAA in total defense, along with a solid tenth against the pass.
Who Should Shine: This could be a relatively low scoring contest, so both defenses should have some success. However, look for Dixon and Smith to rule the day. Both running backs should see 30-35 carries and they will be in charge of keeping the chains moving for their respective offenses.
The Pick: Expect a very close game, but Smith and the Knights are just a tad better and the Bulldogs don’t have enough offense to win this game. Knights 24 Bulldogs 20.
Re: Liberty Bowl
Liberty Bowl Preview
By Judd Hall
Central Florida (10-3 SU, 8-5 ATS) vs. Mississippi State (7-5 SU, 5-6 ATS)
How they got there:
The Knights are making their second bowl trip in the past three years under George O’Leary thanks to capturing the Conference USA championship. Not bad for a team that many didn’t think would amount to much after finishing 2006 with a 4-8 mark.
The Bulldogs are making their first postseason appearance in Sylvester Croom’s four seasons as head coach in Starkville. Big victories over Alabama, Ole Miss and at Kentucky made this a year that looks like the ‘Dogs are preparing to turn the corner for a bright future.
What to expect:
If you like watching a good defense face off against a quality running game, then this is the game for you. Mississippi State stats don’t really show it (159.0 YPG def. rushing, 182.2 def. passing), but it has a stout defense that came on midway through the season. Central Florida possess the top running attack in C-USA, gaining 242.8 YPG on the ground to go along with the 41 rushing touchdowns scored in 2007.
Players to Watch:
Central Florida – Running back Kevin Smith is the heart and soul of the Knights’ offense.
Mississippi State – Defensive back Anthony Johnson leads the Southeastern Conference with three interceptions for 138 yards and a pair of scores.
The Knights don’t have much of a history in bowl games, seeing as they’ve played in just one. And they lost that one, 49-48, as 2 ½-point underdogs to Nevada in the 2005 Hawaii Bowl. For those bettors trying to remember this one, UCF tied it up by scoring 10 points in the final two minutes of regulation. The Knights then went on to lose the game on a failed point-after conversion.
This will be Mississippi State’s 13th bowl appearance and first since 2000. And while the Bulldogs are just 6-6 all-time in the postseason, they’ve gone 2-0 SU and ATS in their last two bowl contests.
Underdogs have done well recently in this bowl, going 1-2 SU, but 2-1 ATS in the past three games.
Inside the Line: Central Florida -3, 56½
You’d think there would be more movement on this line because of most of the public buying that propaganda of the SEC being the most superior league in all of the land, but that isn’t the case for this contest. The Knights have held the same “chalk” status for this game since the line opened.
The squares are buying into this game going ‘under’ though. The line has moved from the opening 60 at most sportsbooks to 56 ½ right now. That’s the most surprising move of a line I’ve seen for some time.
Expert Opinion: Christian Alexander
It certainly seems as if all the build up for this game thus far has centered on UCF RB Kevin Smith, who leads the nation with 188 rushing yards. Granted, there aren't many superstars on the Mississippi State team but this is a team that has a lot to be proud about this season as well.
Wins at Auburn, at Kentucky and against Alabama highlight a season that not only saved Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom's job but inspired the fans to think even bigger things are on the horizon.
There is a sizable gap between these two teams on defense with the Bulldogs holding the advantage. With all due respect to Kevin Smith - and trust me, he deserves all the attention he is getting - MSU has seen playmakers like him all year long (Darren McFadden and Steve Slaton to name a few).
I know that Mississippi State has a great defense, but its offense is pitiful. That means you’re going to see a team playing conservatively when trying to score…pretty much try not to screw up.
Then you have the Knights who will be running Smith down their throats almost every play. Now that could backfire, but I believe that will allow UCF to pull off a few nice play action passes to Rocky Ross and Kamar Aiken.
Final Score: Central Florida 38, Mississippi State 20
Re: Liberty Bowl
Liberty Bowl: Central Florida Knights vs. Mississippi State Bulldogs
- The NCAA's rushing leader takes UCF into the Liberty Bowl against the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Kevin Smith led the Golden Knights to a seven-game winning streak and a 10-3 mark while the Mississippi State Bulldogs look to upset them.
Oddsmakers currently have the Knights listed as 3-point favorites versus the Bulldogs, while the game's total has not yet been posted.
Central Florida forced three Tulsa turnovers last time out in a 44-25 win in the C-USA title game, covering the 8-point home spread. The 69 points scored were UNDER the posted total of 73.5.
Kyle Israel went 6-for-13 for 128 yards, while Kevin Smith had 39 carries for 294 yards and four touchdowns for the Knights.
Mississippi State scored 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter of a 17-14 win over Mississippi last time out, failing to cover the 6-point home spread. The 31 points scored were UNDER the posted total of 49.5.
Wesley Carroll went 13-for-28 for 130 yards, one touchdown and a pick, while Anthony Dixon had seven catches for 101 yards and a score for the Bulldogs.
Central Florida: 10-3 SU, 8-5 ATS
Mississippi State: 7-5 SU, 5-6 ATS
Central Florida most recently:
When playing in December are 1-2
When playing on turf are 6-4
After being outgained are 3-7
When playing outside the conference are 4-6
Mississippi State most recently:
When playing in December are 2-2
When playing on turf are 4-6
After being outgained are 5-5
When playing outside the conference are 6-4
A few trends to consider:
Central Florida is 5-0 SU in its last 5 games
The total has gone UNDER in 6 of Central Florida's last 7 games
Central Florida is 5-2 ATS in its last 7 games
The total has gone UNDER in 4 of Mississippi State's last 5 games
Re: Liberty Bowl
Game Preview for U-C-F vs Miss State
GAME NOTES: The red-hot UCF Knights will try to complete one of their best seasons ever this weekend, when they tangle with the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the 49th annual AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis. The Knights enter the contest riding a school-record seven-game win streak and that includes a 44-25 triumph over Tulsa in the Conference USA title game. It is the first C-USA championship for the program, which also tied a school-record with 10 wins. This is UCF's second-ever bowl appearance, with its first coming in a 49-48 overtime loss to Nevada in the 2005 Hawaii Bowl. As for Mississippi State, it is has been the doormat of the SEC over the past several years, but Sylvester Croom has the program on the rise in his fourth year as head coach. After going just 9-25 in Croom's first three seasons, the Bulldogs surprised just about everyone by finishing the regular season a solid 7-5. The team went 4-4 in league play and that was a big accomplishment when considering it had won a total of five conferences games in the previous five seasons. The turnaround has landed MSU in its 13th bowl game and its first since posting a 43-41 win over Texas Aamp;M in the 2000 Independence Bowl. The Bulldogs own a 6-6 record in bowl games and that includes an even 1-1 mark in the Liberty Bowl. MSU and UCF have met just once previously, with the Bulldogs capturing a 35-28 triumph in 1997.
The Knights are averaging a robust 38.4 ppg on the season mainly because of the play of tailback Kevin Smith, who has shattered numerous records this season. The explosive back leads the nation with 2,448 rushing yards and 30 total touchdowns (29), helping him become the first player in school history to earn consensus All-America honors. In the C-USA title game, Smith rushed for 284 yards and four scores, and in the process he set the NCAA single-season record for rushing attempts with 415. Smith, who is averaging 188.3 rushing ypg, is now just 180 yards behind Barry Sanders for the NCAA Bowl Subdivision single- season rushing record. With all the success on the ground, quarterback Kyle Israel hasn't been counted on to do much more than hand the ball off and manage the offense. When attempting to pass, however, Israel has done a decent job in throwing for 2,085 yards with 15 touchdowns against eight interceptions. He has also scored five times on the ground, helping UCF amass a school-record 41 rushing touchdowns. Rocky Ross and Kamar Aiken are the team's main targets in the passing game and they have combined for 80 catches, 1,205 yards and seven scores.
UCF's defense hasn't been nearly as good as its offense, as the unit is giving up 27.8 ppg and 379.3 total ypg. The Knights are permitting 131.1 ypg on the ground and 248.2 ypg through the air, and they also allowing opposing teams to convert 40 percent of the time on third down. The defense, though, has been able to come up with some big plays and it is tied for the national-lead in interceptions with 23. Getting to opposing quarterbacks has helped force many of those picks, and UCF has had no problems brining down opposing quarterbacks either, registering an impressive 38 sacks. Leger Douzable leads the team with 7.5 sacks and 13.0 TFLs, while Bruce Miller ranks second with seven sacks and nine TFLs. Corners Joe Burnett and Johnell Neal are extremely dangerous to throw against and they have picked off six and five passes, respectively.
The Bulldogs have not had much success on the offensive side of the ball this season, as they are averaging a lackluster 22.4 ppg behind a mere 305.3 total ypg. The offense hasn't had all that much success on the ground (135.3 ypg) or through the air (170.0 ypg), and it has committed 27 turnovers. Tailback Anthony Dixon, however, has enjoyed a solid campaign and he leads MSU with 980 rushing yards and 15 total touchdowns (13 rushing). Dixon, though is averaging just 3.7 yards per carry and he has rushed for a total of just 66 yards over his last two games. True freshman Wesley Carroll started the last seven games at quarterback for the Bulldogs and he led the team to a 4-3 record during that span. In eight starts and 12 appearances for the season, Carroll has completed 53.2 percent of his throws for 1,353 yards with nine touchdowns and six interceptions. His most unutilized targets are Tony Burks and Jamayel Smith, who have accounted for a combined 63 catches, 943 yards and six touchdowns.
Defensively, Mississippi State has been sound, especially when considering the caliber of teams in the SEC. For the season, the Bulldogs are holing their opponents to 24.8 ppg and 341.2 total ypg. The unit, though, has shown some vulnerability against the run (159.0 ypg), and it has given up over 200 yards on the ground in four its last six outings. That is especially bad news when considering the talented back they are going to face in this game. Bringing down opposing quarterbacks has also been a problem for MSU, which has generated just 16 sacks to this point in the season. Titus Brown has accounted for eight quarterback takedowns and he also leads the team with 13.5 TFLs. Jamar Chaney is another player worth noting, as he tops the roster in total tackles with 81.
The Knights come into this contest with a great deal of momentum and behind the dynamic running of Smith, they should be able to prevail against a solid if unspectacular group of Bulldogs.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: UCF 30, Mississippi State 24
Re: Liberty Bowl
Liberty Bowl total still tumbling
Last year’s Liberty Bowl featured a 56-point total that South Carolina and Houston rendered laughably low when the teams combined for 55 points in the first half. The starting quarterbacks combined for 709 yards and seven touchdowns through the air, leading to a 44-36 final tally.
It shouldn’t be a pass-happy game in Memphis this year.
The Central Florida Knights and Mississippi State Bulldogs will stick to a game plan during Saturday’s Liberty Bowl that earned each a rare bowl appearance. And those plans have little to do with passing.
The teams’ ground-heavy attacks might explain the falling total for this year’s Liberty Bowl. The total altered between 59 and 60 points at most sports books in mid-December. It had dropped to 55 ½ points by Friday.
That’s a significant dip that warrants a closer look.
Though six of UCF’s last seven games played under the total, bettors should keep in mind that those were all C-USA games where 70-point totals are common. UCF’s game this season averaged 66.2 points, while each of the Knights’ last 12 games played over 50 points.
UCF is a run-dominant team, evidenced by Kevin Smith breaking the all-time NCAA record for carries in a season. But Smith’s dashes led to the end zone so frequently that the Knights scored 38.4 points per game this season, 13th in the nation. Add a questionable Knights defense to the equation and one might understand how the Knights became involved in so many high-scoring games.
Central Florida played seven games against bowl-bound teams this year, with an average of 70.1 points scored during that span. The shootouts weren’t limited to UCF’s conference action. The Knights narrowly lost a 67-point game with Texas and were blown out in a 76-point game with South Florida.
Mississippi State was another under team late this season, with the under cashing in five of its last seven games. The average Bulldogs game this season involved only 47.2 points.
However, Mississippi State now must face the nation’s No. 9 rushing team. The Bulldogs have faced three other schools that finished in the top-20 in rushing yards per game; LSU (No. 12), West Virginia (No. 4) and Arkansas (No. 3). Mississippi State allowed at least 38 points in each of those games.
Furthermore, the Knights represent only the fourth MSU opponent this year outside of the BCS conferences. The Bulldogs scored at least 30 points against each of the previous three, totaling 644 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground.
I admit that statistics are often meaningless once teams meet on the field. But Saturday’s matchups don’t convince me that either defense is about to stop the run. Simply put, Central Florida and Mississippi State’s biggest strengths are identical: talented backs running behind experienced lines.
UCF’s offensive line excels at run blocking and allows Smith to be patient and wait for holes. Mississippi State defenders watched the game tapes and concede that Smith is easily the most patient runner they’ve encountered this season. That’s the sign of a line that knows what it’s doing. But Smith, equally adept at north-south and east-west running, is more than capable of creating his own holes.
And pity the Knights defenders who try to take down MSU’s Anthony Dixon by themselves. Dixon is a 240-pound load who brings two things to Memphis. He has nearly 1,000 yards’ worth of downhill running, and a substantial chip on his shoulder due to the media focus on Smith.
Early bowl game results have already delivered some ridiculously high-scoring games. Saturday’s Liberty Bowl in Memphis could join the shootout parade in spite of the tumbling total. That’s what happens when runners are just as likely to conclude their runs in the end zone as they are in the arms of opposing defenders.
Re: Liberty Bowl
LIBERTY BOWL (at Memphis)
Central Florida (10-3, 8-5 ATS) vs. Mississippi State (7-5, 5-6 ATS)
Central Florida, which is making just its second bowl appearance in the program’s 12-year Division I-A history, faces a stiff test when it takes on SEC member Mississippi State, which is going bowling for the first time in seven years.
Central Florida captured its first-ever Conference USA championship with a 44-25 rout of Tulsa in the league title game on Dec. 1, easily cashing as a 7½-point home favorite. The Golden Knights carry a seven-game winning streak into this contest, going 5-2 ATS.
Mississippi State’s fourth season under coach Sylvester Croom started with an ugly 45-0 home loss to LSU as a 19-point underdog. But the Bulldogs rebounded to win four of their next five games, then closed the season on a 3-1 run (2-2 ATS), including a 17-14 victory over archrival Ole Miss as a 4½-point home favorite in the finale.
The Golden Knight’s only previous bowl game was a thriller, as they came out on the short end of a 49-48 overtime loss to Nevada in the 2005 Hawaii Bowl. UCF lost on a botched extra-point in the overtime session, but did cash as a 2½-point underdog. Including that setback, veteran coach George O’Leary is 2-3 in his career in the postseason (3-2 ATS).
UCF has won three straight road games (2-1 ATS) and finished 4-2 on the highway (3-3 ATS). Meanwhile, Mississippi State, which hasn’t appeared in a bowl game since 2000, went 3-3 on the road this year (4-2 ATS), including a pair of outright upsets over Auburn as an 11½-point underdog and Kentucky as a 13-point pup.
The Knights are 1-12 all-time against the SEC, but 7-5 ATS. They’re also just 9-24-1 ATS in their last 34 non-conference contests.
Mississippi State is on ATS runs of 4-0 in December and 9-3-1 as an underdog of three points or fewer.
The favorite is 9-2 ATS in the last 11 Liberty Bowls.
UCF has an explosive offense that puts up 38.4 points and 426.5 total yards per game. Although QB Kyle Israel (60 percent completion rate, 2,085 yards, 15 TDs, 8 INTs) was solid, the offense revolves around star RB Kevin Smith, who led the nation with 2,448 rushing yards and 29 TDs and is just 181 rushing yards short of breaking Barry Sanders’ single-season Division I-A rushing record.
After giving up 45 points to LSU in the season opener, Mississippi State’s defense settled down and held seven of its final 11 foes to 17 points or fewer, with three of the last four scoring two TDs or less. For the season, the Bulldogs yielded 341.2 total yards per game, but a whopping 159 rushing ypg (4.2 per carry).
The under is on runs of 5-1 for the Bulldogs overall, 6-1 for Central Florida overall and 11-5-1 for Central Florida in non-conference action.
ATS ADVANTAGE: MISSISSIPPI STATE and UNDER