Liberty Bowl Preview
It has taken a little time, but Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom is in the midst of turning his program around.
Central Florida coach George O'Leary can relate.
After six straight last-place finishes, Croom's Bulldogs will make their first bowl appearance in seven years when they play O'Leary's Knights, who are led by NCAA rushing leader Kevin Smith, in the Liberty Bowl on Dec. 29 in Memphis.
Croom broke new ground the day he was hired by Mississippi State before the 2004 season, becoming the first black head football coach in SEC history.
He took over a program that went just 8-27 from 2001-03, and things didn't get much better with Croom in charge. The Bulldogs went 9-25 in Croom's first three seasons, and were once again picked to finish last in the SEC West Division before the start of this season.
After just five conference wins in their last five seasons, the Bulldogs (7-5) finished 4-4 in SEC play, tied for third in the West with No. 25 Arkansas and Alabama, and will be playing in their first bowl game since defeating Texas A&M 43-41 in the 2000 Independence Bowl.
"It's an affirmation first of all of the commitment to diversity that our university has, a commitment to building a program the right way," said Croom, who was named the SEC coach of the year. "This has not been an overnight kind of deal. It's been a gradual building process. The changes in the program at first were not seen on the outside, but we could always see them on the inside."
O'Leary was hired by Central Florida (10-3) before the 2004 season, and also endured some tough times. The Knights went 3-9 the year before he arrived and 0-11 in his first season.
O'Leary and UCF didn't stay down for long, though, as the team went 8-5 in 2005, earning a berth in the school's first bowl game.
The Knights, who played their first season in the FBS in 1997, lost to Nevada 49-48 in overtime in the 2005 Hawaii Bowl, and are thrilled about making their first bowl appearance since.
"We are very excited to be going to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl and to hear that we are playing a good Mississippi State football team," O'Leary said. "Sylvester Croom has done a great job with the program there."
Led by Smith, UCF is the 13th highest scoring team in the nation (38.4 points per game). He leads all FBS players with 2,448 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns, and became the first player in school history to earn All-America honors.
Smith had 284 yards and four touchdowns in the Knight's 44-25 win over Tulsa in the Conference USA championship on Dec. 1, moving into second place behind Barry Sanders on the NCAA's single-season rushing list. Smith, who averages 188.3 yards per game, is now just 180 yards behind Sanders - a figure he surpassed in four out of his last five games.
"Anytime you get compared with Barry Sanders, you're in elite company," Croom said.
In the conference title game, Smith also set the NCAA all-time single-season record in rushing attempts with 415, 12 more than Marcus Allen had at USC in 1981.
Mississippi State, meanwhile, has allowed an average of 159.0 rushing yards this season, and has given up more than 200 yards on the ground in four of its last six games.
Smith has been held to less than 100 yards only once, as then-No. 5 South Florida limited him to just 55 yards on 18 carries in a 64-12 loss on Oct. 13.
Since losing to the Bulls, the Knights have won a school record seven straight games to match the school record for wins in a season set by the 1990 team that went 10-4 in Division I-AA.
UCF is holding opponents to an average of 21.3 points during its winning streak, while the Bulldogs have the third-worst scoring offense in the SEC (22.4 ppg).
Quarterback Wesley Carroll, who was named to the freshman all-SEC team, finished the season with 1,353 yards, nine touchdowns and six interceptions for the Bulldogs.
Sophomore running back Anthony Dixon had 980 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, but was held to just 66 rushing yards and no running TDs on 28 carries in his final two games for Mississippi State. The Knights have allowed just 60 rushing yards on 54 attempts in their last two games.
The season got off to a rough start for Mississippi State on Aug. 30 with a 45-0 loss to LSU, which is playing Ohio State in the national championship game on Jan. 7, but the Bulldogs are now trying to win eight games for the first time since the 2000 team went 8-4.
Mississippi State completed the regular season with a stunning 17-14 victory over Mississippi on Nov. 23 in the 104th edition of the Egg Bowl. The Bulldogs scored the game's final 17 straight points in the fourth quarter, capped by Adam Carlson's 48-yard field goal with 18 seconds left, tying the school record for the largest fourth-quarter comeback.
"We started this season saying we were treating this season like a journey and the most important thing in a journey is the people that go with you," Croom said.
by: Staff Writers - Email Us
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