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December 27, 2007

Liberty Bowl: Mississippi State vs. UCF

Liberty Bowl: Who has the edge? | Bowl rematches | Bowl Central | Bowl schedule

Mississippi State (7-5) vs. UCF (10-3)
WHEN: 4:30 p.m., Saturday
WHERE: Liberty Bowl, Memphis
TV: ESPN (Terry Gannon will do play-by-play, with David Norrie as analyst).
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: UCF 4-3; Mississippi State 3-4
RECORD VS. BCS TOP 25: UCF 0-2; Mississippi State 2-3
BCS RANK: UCF 30th; Mississippi State N/A
SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Mississippi State T-45th, UCF 69th
COACHES: UCF - George O'Leary (3-3 in bowls); Mississippi State - Sylvester Croom (first bowl)
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: UCF TB Kevin Smith leads the nation in rushing and needs 181 to break Barry Sanders' NCAA single-season rushing record of 2,628 yards.
KEY STATS: UCF ranks ninth nationally in rushing offense at 242.8 yards per game. Mississippi State ranks 65th in rushing defense at 159.0 yards per game and has allowed at least 198 rushing yards in four of its five losses.
KEEP AN EYE ON: This one is obvious, isn't it? All eyes for Mississippi State's defense will be focused on Smith. Yours should be, too.

Be it the football, his team or a grudge, UCF junior tailback Kevin Smith is capable of carrying for the long haul.

But Smith, 181 yards away from breaking the NCAA single-season rushing record, doesn't get carried away with comparisons as he approaches one of college football's most hallowed records.

Smith already has set an NCAA single-season record with 415 attempts (breaking the mark of Marcus Allen) and has carried the Knights to a surprising 10-3 record and a Liberty Bowl matchup against Mississippi State.

That in itself in impressive enough for a kid whose high school coach thought he was better-suited for safety than running back. That may at least partially explain why he ended up playing in Orlando, Fla., rather than Miami, Gainesville or Tallahassee.

Yet, Smith has an even more grandiose goal in sight. If he can gain those 181 yards against Mississippi State, he'll break the single-season rushing record set by Barry Sanders. The former Oklahoma State star rushed for 2,628 en route to winning the Heisman Trophy in 1988.

Smith, 20, was just a toddler when Sanders won the Heisman and admits he didn't watch him play in the NFL. But as he neared the record, Smith became curious about Sanders. He was duly impressed.

"I'm not going to give myself that much credit and say I run like Barry," Smith said. "I didn't watch Barry play, but I've seen plenty of highlights. Since I got close to the record, I went on YouTube hoping to pick up something from his game.

"He was a man among boys. Barry was the man. He did whatever he wanted to on the field."

Smith doesn't have Sanders' speed or dazzling moves (who does?), but he has played like a man among boys this season. He'll have to play that way against a solid Mississippi State defense to break Sanders' record.

The most yardage Mississippi State has allowed this season is 139 to Tennessee's Arian Foster. West Virginia's Steve Slaton had 127 against the Bulldogs, but they limited Tulane's Matt Forte the nation's second-leading rusher to 47 yards and Arkansas' Darren McFadden to 88.

Smith has rushed for more than 180 yards six times this season, including four times in the past five games. He has gained at least 124 yards in every game but one (in a loss to USF) and has scored touchdowns on runs of 41, 44, 46, 56, 74, 80 (twice) and 87 yards. He leads the nation with 2,448 yards and averages more than 188 yards per game.

And Smith's huge rushing total isn't just a byproduct of playing inferior defenses in Conference USA. He also rushed for 149 yards and scored two touchdowns in a 35-32 loss to Texas in mid-September.

"He is a really good player," Texas coach Mack Brown said after that game. "What he was doing is that he was cutting back against us. Our guys were in the right place, we felt like we were playing good defense, and he was making really good runs."

Smith made so many great runs that he even earned some votes for the Heisman Trophy, an impressive feat considering he essentially was an unknown at the beginning of the season.

Still, teammates feel he is underappreciated because he wasn't invited to New York for the Heisman ceremonies and didn't win any other awards, although he was named a first-team All-American by some media outlets.

"Kevin Smith should have been up there (in New York)," UCF guard L.J. Anderson said. "He should have won the Doak Walker. Kevin Smith is the best. They didn't give him the props they should have.

"He focuses on just the team. I'm glad to have him with me and blocking for him."

Had Anderson played on Smith's team at Miami's Southridge High, he would not have been blocking for him. After a coaching change, Smith was moved from tailback to safety for his senior season. Because he was reported to run a 4.65 40-yard dash, Smith was lightly recruited.

"We sucked that year, so it didn't matter if I was a running back or not," Smith said.

Still, he admitted he has no relationship with his high school coach. "I haven't seen him since I left and I'm not interested in seeing him," Smith said.

Smith only had a few scholarship offers out of high school and chose UCF because coach George O'Leary promised to let him play tailback.

True to his word, O'Leary has turned Smith into a workhorse. Smith has carried at least 18 times in every game this season, has had more than 30 carries seven times and more than 40 carries in three games.

Smith could do it all again next season. He announced earlier this month that he would return to UCF for his senior season.

For all his big numbers this season, he was projected to go anywhere from the second to fourth round in the NFL Draft.

"I talked with family, friends and got my team and coach's advice," said Smith, who acknowledged he needed to boost his speed. "A lot of things ran through my mind. I feel good about my decision."

No doubt, everyone at UCF feels good, too. The Knights endured a winless 2004 season, and even in talent-rich Florida, UCF needs validation to lure recruits away from more established programs.

By challenging Sanders' record and leading the Knights to double-digit victories and a bowl game, Smith already has boosted UCF's profile. By returning and perhaps contending for the Heisman Trophy, he hopes to carry UCF to even greater heights in 2008.

Remember, Smith has shown he willing to carry whatever load is necessary.

LIBERTY BOWL: Mike Hugeunin breaks it down
UCF run offense vs. Mississippi State run defense
EDGE: UCF UCF TB Kevin Smith leads the nation in rushing, and not just because he faced weak defenses in Conference USA. He rushed for 149 yards against Texas and 217 against North Carolina State, although USF held him to 55 the only opponent to keep him under 100 yards. Mississippi State has allowed three opposing running backs West Virginia's Steve Slaton, Ole Miss' BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Tennessee's Arian Foster to exceed 100 yards. But the Bulldogs limited Arkansas' Darren McFadden to 88 yards. Perhaps more telling is that Tulane's Matt Forte, a C-USA back who ranked second in the nation in rushing, had a season-low 47 yards against the Bulldogs.
UCF pass offense vs. Mississippi State pass defense
EDGE: Mississippi State UCF senior Kyle Israel has shown the ability to be an effective passer; he just hasn't shown it often. He has attempted fewer than 20 passes in six games, including three times in the past four games. He has thrown just six touchdown passes and five interceptions. Mississippi State has allowed an average of 182.2 passing yards to rank 10th nationally. DE Titus Brown, who is slowed by injury, posted eight sacks to lead a decent pass rush. FS Derek Pegues has All-SEC credentials.
Mississippi State run offense vs. UCF run defense
EDGE: Mississippi State Bulldogs TB Anthony Dixon is a bruiser who has 980 yards and 13 touchdowns, but he hasn't reached 100 yards since Oct. 13 when he had 108 against Tennessee. Mississippi State was held to 80 and 81 rushing yards against Arkansas and Ole Miss, respectively, in its past two games. UCF allows an average of 131.7 yards per game and allowed just 60 rushing yards in its past two games combined. Still, safeties Sha'reff Rashad and Jason Venson are the Knights' top two tacklers, and that's usually not a good sign.
Mississippi State pass offense vs. UCF pass defense
EDGE: UCF Freshman quarterback Wesley Carroll has played well at times, but he also has been inconsistent. He threw four touchdown passes and four interceptions in a loss to Arkansas. Overall, he has nine TDs and six interceptions. Senior WR Tony Burks has big-play ability, but has just two catches or less in eight games. Junior WR Jamayel Smith averages 16.8 yards on 31 receptions. UCF ranks 85th nationally against the pass and has allowed foes to throw for 248.2 yards per game. In seven games against bowl teams, UCF allowed 18 TD passes and 272.7 yards per game. On the positive side, DEs Leger Douzable and Bruce Miller are solid pass rushers, and the Knights rank second in the nation in interceptions with 23.
UCF special teams vs. Mississippi State special teams
EDGE: UCF UCF kicker Michael Torres has converted 19 of 21 attempts, including 6-for-7 from beyond 40 yards. He has not missed in the past eight games. The Knights are solid on returns with Joe Burnett averaging 11.1 yards on punts and Curtis Francis averaging 29.2 yards on kickoffs. Mississippi State's Pegues is an OK return man. He averages 10.5 yards on punt returns and 23 yards on kickoff returns. Kicker Adam Carlson is 9-for-12 on field-goal attempts, but one of the misses was from 51 yards. Punter Blake McAdams has had 17 attempts downed inside the 20.
UCF coaching staff vs. Mississippi State coaching staff
EDGE: UCF Fourth-year coach Sylvester Croom has done an admirable job reversing Mississippi State's fortunes. The Bulldogs managed just three victories in each of Croom's first three seasons, but this season he engineered upsets over Auburn and Kentucky. Croom was voted SEC coach of the year, becoming the first Mississippi State coach to earn that honor since 1957. UCF coach George O'Leary has a 74-60 record as a college head coach. He led Georgia Tech to five consecutive bowl appearances from 1997-2001. UCF was winless in his first season there in 2004, but has gone 22-16 since.
UCF will win if
Smith has a strong showing, and the Golden Knights avoid turnovers. UCF has won every time Smith has exceeded 150 rushing yards, and Mississippi State had difficulty stopping the run in four of its losses.
Mississippi State will win if
So much attention is focused on Smith, and containing him is obviously the Bulldogs' top priority. But the running game may prove to be the key for the Bulldogs' offense as well. They have run well in most of their victories. Though Carroll has played well at times, he isn't ready to be primary factor in victory.
Forcing turnovers was the pivotal factor in Mississippi State's three victories over bowl teams. In their wins over Auburn, Kentucky and Alabama, the Bulldogs benefited from 13 turnovers (eight interceptions, five fumbles). That includes interceptions returned for touchdowns against Auburn and Alabama. UCF has lost 23 turnovers this season.
The picks
Buchanan's pick: Mississippi State 23-20
Other Rivals.com expert picks:
Mike Huguenin, college sports editor: Mississippi State 23-21
Steve Megargee, national college football writer: Mississippi State 21-17
Bill King, Rivals Radio host: Mississippi State 28-24
Check out the rest of the Rivals.com Expert Picks.

Olin Buchanan is the senior national college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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