Posted by Jerry Hinnen
The Basics: UCF (10-3) vs. Georgia (6-6), Dec. 31, 3:30 p.m. EST.
Why You Should Watch: The SEC's bowl tie-ins give the non-AQ teams of the world just one shot at the nation's highest-profile conference, and this is it; the Liberty annually pairs one of the SEC's also-rans against the Conference USA champion. But even with the field seemingly as tilted in favor of the C-USA upset as it could possibly be, it hasn't happened yet, as the SEC has swept all four of the SEC-vs.-C-USA Liberty Bowls to date. UCF represents maybe the best chance for C-USA yet, as they have both the airtight defense (18th nationally) and offensive starpower (in freshman quarterbacking prodigy Jeff Godfrey) to give Georgia all they want.
Of course, the Dawgs have A.J. Green and Justin Houston and Aaron Murray and a whole bunch of other SEC athletes, not to mention a statistical profile much better than their 6-6 record. Last year's Liberty went into overtime, and on paper this one's evenly-matched enough to make it 2-for-2. For depth of talent on display and a well-balanced, competitive matchup, you're not going to do much better before New Year's than the Liberty.
Keys to Victory for UCF: Frankly, the Knights should come into this game the substantially more motivated team. They're coming off of a championship season, but one without a win over BCS competition (after close losses vs. N.C. State and at Kansas State); they couldn't ask for a more perfect finishing touch than beating a traditional SEC power for the program's first-ever bowl victory. That should give the Knights an emotional edge, one that could give them a fast start against a Bulldogs team that badly underachieved to land at 6-6 and no doubt had their sights set on a bowl destination more glamorous than Memphis.
If the Knights do come away with a halftime or three-quarters lead, Georgia will be in trouble. Godfrey was a revelation after taking over for the injured Rob Calabrese at midseason, finishing eighth in the country in passer rating with a sparkling 68.4 completion percentage and 9.8 yards-per-attempt average. He added 10 touchdowns and 546 yards on the ground for good measure, pacing the Knights to the kind of balance (2,502 rushing yards, 2,493 passing) and steady efficiency (fifth in the FBS in time-of-possession at 33:09 a game) that most teams can only talk about.
But as effective as the Knight offense was, it was the defense that did the heavy lifting, starting with a secondary that placed both corner Josh Robinson and safety Kemal Ishmael on the All-C-USA first team and finished in the national top 30 in opponent's passer rating, opponent's yards-per-attempt, and interceptions. But the Knights also have a pair of fearsome defensive ends in Bruce Miller and Darius Nall, who combined for 21 tackles-for-loss and 15.5 sacks to give UCF the nation's 10th-ranked rush defense. (Ishmael's team-leading 82 tackles helped, too.) The absence of a big-play passing game means they won't want to fall behind, but if the Knights can get out in front, their combination of sound defense and clock-killing offense will have them well-positioned for the victory.
Keys to Victory for Georgia: It's simple: if the Dawgs overcome their disappointment of a season and match UCF's levels of energy and focus, they win.
Because while UCF might have several awfully solid players, Georgia has several All-Americans. Houston led the SEC in sacks, finished second in tackles-for-loss, and was a finalist for multiple national awards; Murray might be the only freshman quarterback in the country to have had an even more impressive season than Godfrey, posting an incredible 24-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio; and Green might be the most purely talented college receiver since Larry Fitzgerald. And even aside from their headlining stars, Georgia can boast an offensive line packed with both experience and future NFL players like senior tackle Clint Boling; dangerous skill position weapons like tight end Orson Charles and running back Washaun Ealey; maybe the nation's best pair of specialists in punter Drew Butler and cannon-legged kicker Blair Walsh; kickoff returner Brandon Boykin, who's taken four kicks to the house the past two seasons; two steady senior linebackers in Akeem Dent and Darryl Gamble; etc.
All of that talent means it's something of a mystery how Georgia ever wound up at .500, though plain old bad luck in the form of poorly-timed fumbles and critical defensive breakdowns in close games -- the Dawgs went 0-3 in games decided by 7 points or fewer -- probably had something to do with it. Their average per-play margin of +1.2 (6.4 gained per snap, 5.2 allowed)
ranked first by a wide margin in the SEC East and fourth in the conference behind the leagues' two BCS teams and Alabama. In short, this is a team that's been much better than their place in the SEC standings (or their Liberty berth) would indicate, and if they play to that same standard, they should have enough to overpower the less-talented Knights.
The Liberty Bowl is like: That one sharp-witted, twinkly-eyed elderly gentleman in your neighborhood who you knew from church, or the diner down the street, or maybe just the rocking chair on his front porch, who told stories and though not all of them were classics, he always had one you'd never heard before and some of them stayed with you like Louisville beating Boise State 44-40 in 2004. The Liberty has been in business since 1959, making it one of the oldest pre-New Year's games, and though it's not the game it once was, UCF and Georgia promise to give it another memorable chapter in its distinguished history.