BOCA RATON, Fla. (AP) -Only one quarterback from any Florida school has helped his team to bowl victories in each of the past two seasons.
No, not Tim Tebow.
Or anyone from Florida State or Miami, either.
In the football-crazed Sunshine State, Rusty Smith of Florida Atlantic has numbers better than just about anyone. The senior enters his final season having completed 623 of 1,108 passes for 8,197 yards, 62 touchdowns and 31 interceptions. Among those players who had eligibility left after last season, Smith ranked fourth in career yards, fifth in completions and seventh in touchdowns.
And Florida Atlantic coach Howard Schnellenberger insists his quarterback - who'll lead the Owls when they open the season Saturday at No. 24 Nebraska - is a bona fide star.
p with any one thing that would make him better.''
Physically, maybe not.
But mentally, even Smith says he had work to do in that department.
Smith was a sophomore when Florida Atlantic became one of 2007's surprising stories. Picked to finish sixth in the Sun Belt entering the year - just their third at college football's highest level - the Owls won their conference title and an automatic bid to the New Orleans Bowl. Smith threw for 336 yards and five touchdowns as FAU beat Memphis 44-27, and when the next season began, he found himself getting plenty of national attention, even with some touting him as an NFL draft prospect.
Turns out, he wasn't completely ready for all the buzz.
``There were talks, questions being asked if I was going to come out early and that kind of stuff,'' Smith said. ``Whether you want it to or not, it gets to your head. You try your best not to let it, but it does. People saying 'Come out and be a first-round draft pick,' yeah, that's going to get to your head. And I had some of the worst games of my career.''
Smith struggled mightily to start last season, and FAU got off to a 1-5 start. At that point, he was completing only 49 percent of his passes, plus had nearly twice as many interceptions (nine) as touchdowns (five). Midway through the season, the Owls were already on the verge of falling out of the bowl picture.
Smith, who holds a slew of FAU records. ``And I turned it around.''
He did, in a big way.
FAU finished the regular season with five wins in six games. Smith had 17 touchdowns against only five interceptions, the Owls were thrilled to get to 6-6 and were set to put the pads away until 2009. But the Owls got a relatively surprising invitation to the Motor City Bowl and Smith took advantage of the opportunity, throwing for 306 yards as FAU beat Central Michigan.
This much is clear: Smith has the Cornhuskers' attention.
``I think he's an outstanding football player,'' Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. ``I think he's a Big 12-caliber quarterback. I know the NFL guys really like this guy. He has a strong arm, he's a good decision maker. You can cut it any way you want. He can play.''
There were preseason accolades for Smith again this season, too: For the second straight year, he enters as the Sun Belt coaches' pick for offensive player of the year honors, sharing that role with Arkansas State quarterback Corey Leonard.
Smith says he's better suited to handle the pressure now. And now he gets a chance at crossing another item off his to-do list. FAU is 0-6 all-time against teams ranked in the AP Top 25, 0-5 with Smith as the starter.
2008, Smith sees no reason why it isn't time for a breakthrough.
``It's easier now to motivate yourself because you know what it's like to win a bowl game, to win a conference championship, what it looks like to have a ring on your finger,'' Smith said. ``Once you taste those experiences - and I'm getting goosebumps right now just thinking about it - we want so badly to have things like that happen again.''

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