*Central Florida won the Eastern Division of Conference USA with a 7-1 record, then defeated Tulsa in the CUSA championship game for the league title in only UCF's third year as a member.
*This is MSU Coach Sylvester Croom's first Bulldog bowling team. But the Alabama alumnus played for three teams that appeared in a post-season game, and he coached on ten others as an assistant.
*UCF Coach George O'Leary became a college head coach in 1994 at Georgia Tech and directed five Yellowjacket teams to bowls. This is his second Central Florida team to go bowling.
*Both these coaches were on the San Diego Chargers staff in 1992-93, Croom in charge of running backs and O'Leary the defensive line.
*Mississippi State has not won on ESPN (the original network) since the 2001 season, having lost the last seven appearances. But, the last two times State played a bowl game shown by ESPN, the Bulldogs won; in 1999 and 2000.
Bowl Records: This is Mississippi State's 13th bowl appearance in 104 seasons. The Bulldogs are 6-6, but won their last two holiday classics (1999 Peach, 2000 Independence). Central Florida has only played varsity football since 1979, and been in Division I since 1996. This is their second bowl appearance, after the 2005 Hawaii Bowl where they lost to Nevada in overtime. Before moving up to I-A, Knight teams played in lower-Division playoff games six times.
*Mississippi State has twice participated in a Liberty Bowl classic. The first was in 1963, in the original home of Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, with the Bulldogs defeating North Carolina State 16-12 under legendary bitter-cold conditions. It was somewhat warmer in 1991 when State played Air Force, in Memphis this time. The Falcons dominated in a 38-15 rout.
About the Knights: It's an overnight success twelve seasons in the making. And given the nature of this club, Coach George O'Leary has built for a long haul indeed. It's not just the personnel, either, though with superstar running back Kevin Smith and other top-drawer skill players on both sides of the ball there are names to note here. It's how Central Florida has won; unlike most young programs making the big break-out on flashy air attacks, the Knights have succeeded by playing physical football on both sides of the line-up. The offense gets first billing with 38-point weekly production, but the defensive front can go cleat toe-to-toe with most anyone and the secondary has the turnover knack. All this has produced the first ten-win season and D-I conference title in Central Florida history…but likely not the last in either catgory.
Offense: Understand, there is more to this unit than a single star running back. Yet Kevin Smith's season has been so brilliant it is difficult to see anything or anyone else. The junior is less than the length of two fields from setting the NCAA season rushing record; he has 2,448 and needs 180 to catch Barry Sanders' standard. His yards and 188.3 average lead the nation, as does his 13.9 points-per game. Nine of his 30 touchdowns have come on plays of 20 or more yards showing Smith's burst, but he's surprisingly physical also at 211 pounds and rarely goes down on first contact. Only South Florida held him under 100 yards (18 carries, 55 yards), but since then Smith hasn't failed to get at least 170 a game and a touchdown. He had four of ‘em in the CUSA title game, in fact. Oh, and he can catch a tossed ball too, with 21 receptions. If the starter gets tired of toting, Phillip Smith has four touchdowns himself rushing. But don't go thinking all Kyle Israel does is hand off. The senior quarterback has some pretty nice numbers himself, including 2,085 passing yards with 15 touchdowns against eight interceptions. Israel was key to the winning streak too; after completing 53% in the first six games, he was 67% the last seven with ten scores and 1,200 yards. The win at Southern Mississippi showed what Israel can do when a defense focuses on Smith, as he was 12-of-16 throwing. There's a trio of top targets to throw for, led by junior Rocky Ross with a team-best 48 catches and 631 yards. Yet it's the arrival of two true frosh who've balanced this attack. Kamar Aiken and A.J. Guyton have immediately contributed at wideout with seven touchdowns and 55 receptions between them. Nine of UCF's touchdowns this year have come from true rookies. Smith, Israel, and cohorts have benefited from a veteran group of blockers that has SEC size. In fact few league tackles compare to 324-pound RT Josh Sitton in stature or experience. He has started 41-straight games, including stints this year at both guard positions when necessary. Former guard Kyle Smith made a permanent home at center this senior year, and LT Patrick Brown has 39 career starts—most of any junior in the country. With proven muscle up front, no wonder UCF has scored (40 touchdowns, 13 kicks) on 53 of 59 trips into the red zone. They've also converted on 11 of 17 fourth-down attempts. Yes, he's one of the nation's great running backs…but there's a heckuva lot more to Central Florida's offense than even Kevin Smith.
Defense: This is not your typical CUSA defense. There's size and strength in the front-seven, and explosive play-makers in the secondary comparable to any league in the land. The house specialty is stuffing ground games, where UCF allows just 131 yards a week and 3.7 per-carry. Certainly running to the right (or their left) is a low-percentage call with 295-pound Leger Douzable and 335-pound Torrell Johnson lined up on that side. Douzable has been superb this year against run or throw, with 13 of his 46 tackles for losses and a team-best 7.5 sacks. The right side isn't as large but gets around, especially freshman end Bruce Miller with nine TFLs and seven sacks. Central Florida led the league with 38 sacks (up from 25 last season) and is credited with 35 more quarterback ‘hurries.' The all-underclass linebacker unit is anchored around middle-man Chance Henderson, a 240-pound soph with 72 tackles, while OLB Coy Houge is free to attack and has 69 stops of his own. Yet the top two tacklers come from that excellent defensive backfield. SS Sha'reff Rashad is everywhere, stuffing the run with 94 total tackles or breaking up throws with four intercepts and seven more deflections. Fellow junior FS Jason Venson has 81 tackles and a pair of picks. But that's nothing compared to shut-down corners Joe Burnett (a CUSA-best six picks) and Johnell Neal (five interceptions). And they have 22 break-ups between them. No wonder the Knights defense tied for first nationally in interceptions with 23. Yet that's only part of the story, as when UCF was 3-3 they'd gone 18 quarters without forcing a turnover. In the seven-win streak they've come up with 22 takeaways, 20 of them off passes.
Specialists: Spot the ball close enough to the 30-yard line and Michael Torres is darn near automatic, having hit 19-of-20 field goals from less than 50 yards (he's 0-of-1 beyond). And he's made good on the last 15 three-pointers, including a 3-of-3 showing in the CUSA title game. He's 50-of-51 on PATs. Punter Blake Clingan averages 40.5 yards with 17 fair-catches and a dozen downed inside the 20-yard line. Cornerback Burnett has been outstanding fielding punts with over 11 yards each return and a 83-yard touchdown, while Curtis Francis nets 29 yards on kickoff returns with a 93-yard score himself. Coverage on both sorts of kicks is a potential weak point, though.
The Series: These programs have only met once before, in 1997 with Mississippi State winning 35-28 at Scott Field. State is 83-61-3 against teams making up the current CUSA, though the great majority of those contests were played before the league existed. Croom is 5-3 against CUSA teams. State is 29-16-3 in all games played in Memphis.
The Last Time (October 25, 1997): Down a touchdown with eight minutes left on the Scott Field scoreboard, Mississippi State turned to James Johnson to score a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns and stave off an upset bid by visiting Central Florida. Johnson already had a pair of scores to his credit, on a nine-yard run in the first quarter and a three-yard blast in the second. But the Knights matched that with two first-half touchdowns of their own, on a two-yard run in the opening period and a 13-yard pass from Daunte Culpepper in the next. State did edge ahead after three periods, offsetting a pair of UCF field goals with a 42-yard touchdown toss from Matt Wyatt to Lamont Woodberry. The Culpepper not only threw for the go-ahead TD at 8:53 with a 17-yard toss, but completed the two-point conversion pass as well. The lead lasted less than two minutes though as at 6:38 Johnson dove one yard to tie the taly; then after a punt return by Robert Isaac gave State possession on UCF's 44-yard line the winning drive ended at 5:13 on JJ's seven-yard scamper. Johnson ended with 146 yards and four touchdowns on 26 carries, while Wyatt was 6-of-18 throwing for 171 yards. Culpepper lived up to billing by throwing for 359 yards (29-of-52) and two scores against three interceptions. UCF piled up more yards, 486 to 318, and had the ball eight minutes longer.
Did You Know? Central Florida opened a new on-campus facility this season, and won six of their seven games at Bright House Networks Stadium. The average gate of 44,018 ranked 50th nationally, better than some BCS-league programs.
Bulldog Player Notes and Records: Senior DE Titus Brown goes into his last Mississippi State game trying to score another sack, or two, before he's through. Brown also wants to make up for being held without a sack or tackle-for-loss in the last two regular-season games. He has 8.0 this year and 18.5 career sacks, ranking 7th on the MSU list and one behind Greg Favors (19.5, 1994-97) for 6th.
*Brown needs another sack to have a top-ten season for State; he's right behind Tyrone Keys (1979) and Billy Jackson (1982) with nine apiece in those years.
*Brown is eighth in the SEC in tackles for losses at 12.0 and has made at least one stop behind the line in 16 of his last 20 games.
*Between them, DE's Brown and fellow senior Avery Hannibal have 10.0 of the team's 16.0 sacks; and 25 of the 47 quarterback hurries. In fact these two ends have more hurries than all MSU's opponents did in 12 games, 23.
*Junior FS Derek Pegues already has eight interceptions as a collegian, and needs one more to join the MSU career top-ten list. His next pick will tie Pegues with Bill Kiser (1965-67), Emile Petro and Ken Phares (both 1970-72) with nine apiece. Pegues averages 22 yards of returns every time he picks a pass.
*But Pegues already holds the career interception-for-touchdown record at State with three; two in 2006 and one this year.
*By moving to free safety, Pegues has as many tackles this season (46) as he had in two years at cornerback combined (14 and 32).
*Pegues' 75-yard punt return touchdown in the Egg Bowl was his second scoring play off a punt at State. The junior now has 613 yards off punts for his career, and in the Egg Bowl he jumped three slots up to 4th on the MSU list behind the 777 of third-place Bobby Herrington (1930-31, 33).
*Pegues now holds the career record for kickoff returns at 80, having broken his tie with Tony James (78, 1989-92). James still ranks first in yardage, 1,862 to 1,776.
*With 131 total kick returns Pegues ranks 9th in SEC history. He has the 9th-most kickoff return yards in SEC history.
*The Bulldog defense finished the regular season with 15 interceptions. Five of these were returned for touchdowns, all in MSU wins.
*Sophomore CB Anthony Johnson had two of those ‘pick-sixes', against UAB and Alabama, before his season-ending injury in the Egg Bowl. His 100-yard return in the latter game set the school record. Johnson also now is tied for the MSU season record for interception/touchdowns with S Derek Pegues (two in 2006), Harper Davis (1948), Walt Harris (1994), and Conner Stephens (2000) for the season record.
*Johnson leads the secondary with three picks in 2007. Pegues (Auburn, South Carolina) and S De'Mon Glanton (GW, Kentucky) have two each this year.
*The other interception touchdowns for State this year are by LB Gabe O'Neal (Tulane), Pegues (Auburn), and Glanton (GW).
*Johnson is still just one pass-broken-up ahead of Glanton, 8 to 7.
*Senior MLB Jamar Chaney closed the regular-season strong to take the team tackle lead into bowl season. He had 22 tackles in the last two games, giving him 81 for the season. Chaney has been in a race with his two linebacker cohorts all year, and goes into the bowl leading SLB Gabe O'Neal (74) and WLB Dominic Douglas (70).
*But O'Neal is tops in ‘solo' hits with 43 compared to 36 for Douglas and 31 for Chaney. Meanwhile, Douglas leads the unit in tackles-for-losses at 8.5 (O'Neal 7.5, Chaney 4.0). These three starting linebackers have just over 25% of all the team's tackles…yet only two sacks between them of the team's 16.0.
*By shutting out Ole Miss in the fourth quarter, State now has a positive scoring ratio in the final period; 72 points to 67.
*P Blake McAdams booted the ball eight times in the Egg Bowl, for a 41.2-yard average with two balls downed in the red zone. That gave the junior an even 40.0-yard average for the season, up from 38.2 as a sophomore. He dropped 17 balls inside the 20-yard line with three touchbacks, two of those in the Egg Bowl.
*With 207 punts in three State seasons McAdams ranks 4th on the career list. And the career record is just 217 by Dana Moore (1979-82). McAdams' 8,129 yards is 5th-most in MSU history, 4.6 miles.
*In his three years McAdams has punted 69, 68, and now 66 times.
*Junior WR Jamayel Smith had 247 yards' worth of catches in his first ten games this year. In the last two he had 256, though 208 of that came in just the Arkansas game on ten grabs.
*His ten catches at Little Rock were the most by a Bulldog since Eric Moulds in 1995. And the yardage was the highest output by a MSU receiver since Danny Knight (vs. Florida 1982) had the same total. Smith, Knight, and Sammy Milner (vs. Texas Tech 1968) are tied for second-most yards in a single game. The record is 215 by David Smith against Texas Tech in 1970.
*Senior WR Tony Burks trailed Smith in yardage this year, 503 to 440. But Burks caught at least one ball in every game, with a 19-game streak going into the Liberty Bowl. And he edged Smith in receptions for 2007 with 32 to 31.
*Burks averaged 24.3 yards per catch as a junior; he netted 13.8 as a senior, while Smith was good for 16.2 each grab.
*Smith and Burks have six of the team's 12 touchdown receptions.
*The Bulldogs caught more passes this year than last, 180 to 174. And touchdowns via the pass went from 10 to 12. But total yardage fell from 2,300 to 2,040.
The yards, and yards-per-catch, were down partly because the ball was spread around more effectively in 2007. Where the year before wideouts accounted for all but two touchdown catches, this season tight ends and backs had five scoring throws.
Senior TE Jason Husband had a pair of touchdown catches. He also emerged late in the year as the tough-play target with six receptions at Arkansas. Husband was third in total receptions at 16 with a 12.1-yard average.
*The second-best day for a Bulldog receiver this year was by…a halfback. Sophomore Anthony Dixon caught seven balls in the Egg Bowl for 101 yards and a touchdown. In fact his 53-yard grab was the second-longest of the season at State, behind only Smith's 80-yard touchdown play at Arkansas.
*Before his big day against Ole Miss, Dixon had only 56 yards on six receptions all season.
*But of course Dixon is better-known for taking handoffs than pulling in passes. Having broken the season-record for MSU carries after 11 games, Dixon moved that marker to 263 for the year. The old mark was 236 by James Johnson (1998).
*Dixon did go into a late-season slump though, with 66 yards in his last two games on 28 carries. So he goes into the Liberty Bowl with 980 net yards; bowl statistics are now counted by the NCAA so Dixon has his shot at posting the ninth 1,000-yard rushing year by a Bulldog.
*His 980 as a soph still ranks as the 10th-best year at State.
*Dixon did not run for a touchdown in the Egg Bowl, other than after making the catch. So his 13 rushing touchdowns remain tied for 3rd on the MSU list with John Bond (1983) and Keffer McGee (1995). The record is 16 by Jackie Parker in 1952.
*After two seasons Dixon is established in career categories. He is 8th in carries with 432, having passed both Dennis Johnson (1974-77) and Michael Haddix (1979-82) in the last game. His 1,648 yards pushed him just past McGee (1,647) for 15th place in MSU history. And his 22 rushing touchdowns are already tied for 5th with Dontae Walker (1999-02). The career rush TD record is 27 by Michael Davis (1991-94).
*Sophomore HB Christian Ducre has three of the four other rushing touchdowns for State this season (QB Mike Henig has the fourth). Two have come in SEC games including the game-winner at Auburn and game-clincher at Kentucky. Ducre's 4.4 yards per carry are better than Dixon's 3.7. Ducre has 486 rushing yards total.
*Freshman QB Wesley Carroll planned to redshirt this season; instead he played every game, started eight, and won five of his starts. He was the only triggerman to play in all 12 contests.
*Carroll completed the regular season with a 53.2% completion rate and a positive touchdown-to-intercept rate of 9-to-6. This was only the second time the primary State starter had thrown more scores than picks since the 1998 season. Omarr Conner had eight TDs and five intercepts in 2005. Carroll began his career with 137 passes thrown without an interception, falling one-shy of the NCAA record at the start of a career.
*Carroll ended up with 1,353 passing yards and 10.7 yards per-caught ball.
*Carroll became the first Bulldog to throw for 400 yards in 13 years when he had 421 yards of completions against Arkansas. It was the third-best day for a MSU quarterback ever, behind only Derrick Taite (466, 1996 Tulane) and Dave Marler (429, 1978 Alabama). His 51 attempts in that game were second-most ever at State (53, Joe Reed 1970); and the 29 completions second also (32, Tommy Pharr 1969).
*The four touchdowns passes at Little Rock tied for the MSU game record, matching Tony Shell (twice), Taite (twice), and Omarr Conner.
*Intentionally or not, Carroll has run the ball 41 times and produced a net gain of 46 yards.
*State quarterbacks have been sacked 20 times this year, compared to 29 last season.
*PK Adam Carlson only got on chance at a field goal in the Egg Bowl, and he made the 48-yarder count for the game-winner…the first of his career. The junior began this season making three-of-six tries; he ended it on a six-make streak, spread over nine-game span. Now 9-of-12 for the season, Carlson is 17-of-28 for his career. He also has hit the last 19 PATs, though his 47-make streak ended in the UAB game.
*Two Bulldog seniors own the team lead in career games played. Both TE Dezmond Sherrod and DE Avery Hannibal have gotten on the field in 46 contests, all consecutively, through their four varsity seasons. The consecutive-start lead belongs to P Blake McAdams at 35. C Royce Blackledge is first among the non-specialists in starts with 30-straight.
*A total of 43 Bulldogs have started at least one game this season. Only 10 players have started every game of 2007, including the two specialists.
*A total of 76 Bulldogs have played in at least one game this year. And 36 have played in all 12 games.
*This year six true freshmen have played: LB K.J. Wright, QB Wesley Carroll, ST Karlin Brown, S Zach Smith, DT Lamarcus Williams, and OT Derek Sherrod.
*True freshmen who have not played are QB Chris Relf, S Wade Bonner, HB Robert Elliott, HB Marcus Green, LB Jamie Jones, CB Damein Anderson, LB Terrell Johnson, OL Addison Lawrence, OL/SN D.J. Looney, OL Dakota Merritt, PK Eric Richards (injured), DL Quentin Saulsberry, and FB Ethan Stockett.