CFN's Take: East Carolina vs. Central Florida

College Football News takes a look at Saturday's contest against Central Florida.

UCF (3-1) at East Carolina (2-3)  7:30 PM CSTV

Why to watch
: Three teams are in the hunt this year for the Conference USA East crown.  These are two of them.  While UCF has some margin for error, East Carolina does not thanks to a loss earlier in the year to Southern Miss, the third team in the mix.  The Pirates delivered a gut-check win last weekend, going on the road to outlast Houston, 37-35, with a little help from the offense and Cougar kicker T.J. Lawrence.  Battle-tested from a hellacious September schedule, they’ll be right where they need to be at the mid-point of the season with another upset win.  UCF has been the surprise of the conference through the first month, sporting the league’s best offense and going toe-to-toe with Texas three weeks ago in a defining performance.  The Knights’ fast start has been fueled by junior RB Kevin Smith, who leads the nation in rushing and has already scored 10 times.  A UCF win Saturday night could set up a winner-take-all scenario in the East when the Knights travel to Hattiesburg on Oct. 28.

Why UCF might win: Smith has been playing at a different level this season, carrying the Knight offense and wearing out opposing defenses for 178 yards rushing a game.  A physical back, he’ll continue to control the clock and move the chains against a banged up East Carolina front seven.  UCF sports not only the league’s top-ranked offense, but its highest-rated defense as well.  The Knights have been especially frugal in pass defense, which will present a big challenge to a 104th-ranked Pirate offense that’s still bouncing between Patrick Pinkney and Rob Kass at quarterback.

Why East Carolina might win: Numbers lie, especially in September.  Yeah, the Pirates are 72nd nationally in run defense, but that includes a beat-down at the hands of West Virginia, which runs circles on most of its opponents.  Sans that Mountaineer game, East Carolina has given up just 100 yards a game on the ground, a figure that would easily rank it atop Conference USA.  There are still enough healthy bodies in Greenville to contain Smith, forcing ineffective QB Kyle Israel to do more than just hand the ball off.  The Knights lack of balance or a scary passing game will allow the Pirates to overcommit to stopping the run without paying the consequences.

Who to watch: Israel holds the key to whether UCF is going to be a pretender or a bona fide threat to win a conference championship in 2007.  He has to start giving opposing defenses a reason not to stack the line order to gang up on Smith, the Knights’ catalyst on offense.  If the Knights continue to wallow at the bottom of the league in passing, George O’Leary won’t hesitate to give the ball to Michael Greco, a good all-around athlete with intriguing upside potential.

What will happen: No stranger to games decided by a touchdown or less, East Carolina will get caught in another tight one that isn’t decided until the final quarter.  UCF will get a late pick from its seasoned secondary to seal a second critical win of the year in the Tar Heel State.

CFN Prediction: UCF 28 … East Carolina 24 ... Line: UCF -3.5

Must See Rating: (5 Paris on Letterman - 1 Singing Bee) ... 2.5


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