Liberty Bowl Preview: Central Florida vs. Mississippi State

AutoZone Liberty Bowl
Dec. 29, 1:30 p.m. PST
Central Florida (10-3) vs. Mississippi State (7-5)
Memphis, Tennessee
Payout: $1,750,000
Spread: Central Florida – 3

If you haven’t seen Central Florida running back Kevin Smith play yet, youtube him. College football fans need to know something about the man challenging Barry Sanders’ single season rushing record. The single season record hasn’t been passed around like the slut the career rushing record is. This record actually has some meaning. Unfortunately though Smith isn’t quite doing in the same era Sanders did. Back then bowl games didn’t count towards your rushing total. Sanders played just 11 games that year. Smith will have played 14.

All the same, I don’t think the record will fall against Mississippi State on Saturday. The Bulldog run defense isn’t incredibly talented but they’ve certainly heard enough about Kevin Smith to want to do everything in their power to keep him from breaking the record. Smith needs 180 yards to do it and the only bowl team he put up those type of numbers against was Tulsa in the conference championship game. Some point to the success he had against Texas early in the season, but Texas has been inconsistent and Smith still ran for 149 yards, not the 180 he needs now. Smith has also been running through some massive holes thanks to his offensive line. Mississippi State won’t be a pushover at the point of attack and he’ll have to make more plays for himself than he’s used to.

The subplot here is the game itself. Mississippi State head coach Sylvester Croom has done a magnificent job in getting the Bulldogs to their first bowl game since the 2000 season. A game that holds a special place in my mind because of the snow it was played in. Now Croom looks to make his own history here in the Liberty Bowl. But as I’m sure he knows, they’ll have to stop Kevin Smith.

That’s not necessarily true. Smith will probably run for good yardage, maybe not 180 but still a solid number. If the Bulldog defense can force UCF into passing situations and consistently make tackles in front of the sticks they can win the field position battle and squeeze out a close win. Knights’ quarterback Kyle Israel has been a nice complement to Smith but hasn’t shown he can carry the team on his back for a victory. The game is going to hinge on MSU’s ability to keep UCF out of the end zone because the Bulldogs don’t have an offense that can win a game on its own. They’ll be battle tested thanks to the rugged SEC schedule and a road trip to West Virginia, so I’m sure they won’t be intimidated.

The MSU offense needs to produce. It starts with running backs Anthony Dixon and Christian Ducre. Establishing the run against UCF is going to do wonders for the passing game, especially against UCF, who struggles in pass defense. They can rattle passers though and have 23 interceptions on the year, led by cornerback Joe Burnett who has six. True freshman quarterback Wesley Carroll hasn’t been the starter very long but he needs to grow up in a hurry. State is going to have to take shots downfield to their two playmakers on the outside Jaymayel Smith and Tony Burks. Staying away from Burnett won’t be possible the whole game so the two wide outs will have to be cognizant of the potential for turnovers and play defensive back at times. If they can hit the big play in the passing game it will take the pressure off their defense and potentially get UCF away from their game plan.

I think Mississippi State will be able to win this game if they win the turnover battle and get the passing game going. Central Florida is a good football team. They’re well coached and have some talent but they wouldn’t last in the SEC, this MSU team has. Sly Croom deserves all the coach of the year honors he can get and this team deserves the Liberty Bowl win.

Prediction:
Mississippi State 23 – Central Florida 16

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