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December 30, 2010

Liberty Bowl: Georgia vs. UCF

These are heady times for UCF's athletic department.

The Knights (10-3) are the Conference USA football champs, have won 10 games for the third time in school history (the second as an FBS school), were ranked in the polls for the first time and head into the postseason ranked 25th in the BCS standings.

The men's basketball team is unbeaten and is ranked for the first time after beating three in-state foes in major conferences: Florida (SEC), Miami (ACC) and USF (Big East).

In addition, UCF is being mentioned as a potential Big East member as that league looks to potentially expand again.

A victory over Georgia (6-6) in Friday's Liberty Bowl would cap off the best season in UCF football history and give the "UCF to the Big East" supporters more ammo. But the Knights have not fared well in their history against Big Six schools, owning a 2-46 record in such games. UCF has beaten one Big Six foe -- N.C. State, in the 2007 opener -- in the past 10 seasons; they've lost 29 of those contests in that span.

Meanwhile, this is a school-record 14th consecutive bowl appearance for the Bulldogs, who have won three postseason games in a row.

WHO GETS THE EDGE?

Georgia rush offense vs. UCF rush defense: Georgia hasn't been nearly as effective running the ball as was expected. The line has underachieved, as have the backs. Injuries have hurt, and TB Caleb King will miss the bowl because of academic issues. That leaves the bulk of the work to Washaun Ealey, who has had three 100-yard games and rushed for 11 TDs. UCF has allowed just nine rushing TDs; only two of them have come in the past five games. The Knights have allowed more than 150 rushing yards just once, and they held a potent K-State rushing attack to just 83 yards. UCF has a speedy group of linebackers, and that unit must play well. Edge: UCF.

LIBERTY BOWL

Georgia (6-6) vs. UCF (10-3)
WHEN: Dec. 31, 3:30 p.m.
WHERE: Liberty Bowl, Memphis.
TV: ESPN (Dave Neal will do play-by-play, with Andre Ware as the analyst).
THE LINE: Georgia by 6.5.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Georgia 3-5, UCF 2-3.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Georgia 45th, UCF T-108th.
BCS RANKINGS: Georgia unranked, UCF 25th.
OFFICIATING CREW: From the Big 12.
COACHES: Georgia - Mark Richt (7-2 in bowls); UCF - George O'Leary (2-5 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: This might not have all that much national appeal, but it's an interesting game for fans in the Southeast. Georgia is trying to avoid its first losing season since going 5-6 in 1996, which was Jim Donnan's first season. UCF is trying for the first 11-win season in school history, and the Knights -- who have 16 Georgians on their roster -- are far more athletic than a typical Conference USA team.
KEY STATS: Georgia is 21st nationally in scoring offense at 34.3 points per game, and the Bulldogs have scored at least 30 points in seven consecutive games. UCF is 12th in scoring defense at 18.0 points per game and 17th in total defense at 318.1 yards per game.
Georgia pass offense vs. UCF pass defense: Junior WR A.J. Green is one of the best in the nation, and he could be playing his final college game. He requires a double-team, and his presence opens up the offense for everyone else. He missed four games because of an NCAA-mandated suspension, and the Bulldogs averaged 24.3 points in those games; in the eight games he played, that average climbed to 39.3 points. WRs Kris Durham and Tavarres King and TE Orson Charles are effective complements. Redshirt freshman QB Aaron Murray has thrown 24 TD passes and just six picks. UCF has allowed 21 TD passes and has 15 interceptions. UCF had trouble with the passing attacks of Southern Miss, East Carolina and Houston; those are three pass-first attacks, granted, but those teams have no receiver close to Green in ability. UCF has an OK pass rush, and the Knights need to pressure Murray. The Bulldogs have allowed 22 sacks. UCF DEs Bruce Miller and Darius Nall -- both Georgia natives -- have combined for 15.5 sacks, and their play bears watching. CB Josh Robinson is the best player in a good secondary. Edge: Georgia.

UCF rush offense vs. Georgia rush defense: UCF lost 1,000-yard rusher Brynn Harvey to a spring knee injury, and the rushing attack suffered a bit. Still, the Knights have three guys with at least 10 rushing TDs. RBs Ronnie Weaver and Latavius Murray have combined for 1,423 yards and 21 TDs, and QB Jeff Godfrey has run for 546 yards and 10 scores. Murray has come on strong of late. Georgia has allowed 23 rushing TDs, and you can run right up the gut on the Bulldogs. Other than Tennessee, teams that have made a concerted effort to run on Georgia have been successful. Edge: UCF.

UCF pass offense vs. Georgia pass defense: Godfrey, a true freshman, is a true dual-threat quarterback, and he is eighth nationally in passing efficiency -- one spot ahead of Murray. Godfrey has thrown 11 TD passes and just two interceptions in the past six games. But he has thrown for more than 190 yards just twice this season. There is no true go-to receiver, though the Knights do have four wide receivers with at least 28 receptions. Jamar Newsome has had three 100-yard outings in the past five games. Georgia is 20th in pass defense; the Bulldogs have allowed 14 TD passes and also have 14 interceptions; three of those picks have been returned for scores. OLB Justin Houston is one of the best pass rushers in the nation; he has 11 of the Bulldogs' 24 sacks. UCF has allowed 20 sacks. Georgia has to get pressure on Godfrey, but they also need to be cognizant of keeping him in the pocket; he has good speed and can hurt opponents with his scrambling ability. Edge: Even.

Georgia special teams vs. UCF special teams: Georgia might have the best kicker/punter duo in the nation in K Blair Walsh and P Drew Butler. Walsh is 18-of-21 on field-goal attempts, including 2-of-2 from beyond 50; he is 5-of-7 from beyond 40 yards. Butler, whose dad, Kevin, was an NFL kicker and a Georgia alum, averages 44.7 yards per attempt. CB Brandon Boykin is an excellent kick returner, and the Bulldogs have a solid punt-return unit, too. The coverage teams made strides this season and have been sharp. UCF K Nick Cattoi has struggled mightily. He has missed three extra-point attempts and is just 10-of-18 on field goals, including only 1-of-6 from beyond 40 yards. P Blake Clingan is adequate. The return men have been great, and they almost even out Georgia's huge advantage at kicker and punter. Robinson, the team's best defensive back, is averaging 17.3 yards on 17 punt returns, and backup WR Quincy McDuffie is one of the best kick returners in the nation; he has returned two for scores and averages 32.7 yards per attempt. Newsome also has been extremely effective in a limited return role. UCF's kickoff coverage also has been excellent, while the punt coverage has been OK. Edge: Georgia.

Georgia coaches vs. UCF coaches: Georgia's Mark Richt has had great success but still occupies a seat that is at least lukewarm; a bowl loss to a non-Big Six team certainly would rile up Bulldogs fans. First-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's installation of a 3-4 scheme has paid off, though the defense still isn't as good as it should be for a program of this stature. Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo is uneven; his unit isn't as consistent as it needs to be. UCF's George O'Leary oversees what might be the best program in Conference USA; his emphasis on the running game and defense has paid dividends the past few seasons. Defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable makes good use of the speed on his side of the ball. Veteran offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe deserves credit for overcoming the loss of Harvey and for adjusting on the fly to get Godfrey acclimated quickly. Edge: Georgia.

X-factor: Georgia's psyche will play a big role. The Bulldogs did not have the season expected of them, and finishing up in the Liberty Bowl might not be all that appealing to the players.

Georgia will win if: If Ealey runs effectively (say, 80-plus yards), the Bulldogs will be in good shape. Murray is going to have success throwing the ball and Green could have a huge game. If the Bulldogs are able to run, too, that bodes extremely well.

UCF will win if: Defense and the running game have carried the Knights all season, and that must continue. Still, UCF coaches do not want Godfrey to have to win the game with his arm. Huxtable needs to make sure his defense stifles the run.

EXPERT PICKS

Olin Buchanan: Georgia 23, UCF 17
Tom Dienhart: Georgia 31, UCF 25
David Fox: Georgia 17, UCF 10
Mike Huguenin: Georgia 24, UCF 20
Steve Megargee: Georgia 27, UCF 23

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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