North Georgia is blanketed in snow, the Liberty Bowl is just days away, and I appear inadvertently to have begun this posting in a manner reminiscent of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. The event---the bowl game, not the virtually unprecedented Christmas snowfall in the Peach State or the oddity of my having aped the opening of one of the better first novels to have been published in the last 20 years---is noteworthy for many reasons, marking as it does the final game of the Georgia Bulldogs’ 2010 football season, the last day of the calendar year, the first bowl game I have attended in 15 years, and A.J. Green’s final outing in a Bulldog uniform before he does or does not enter the NFL draft. In offering a preview of such a momentous event, I cannot content myself with providing just a pinch of insight, a modicum of minutiae, or a dollop of data; rather, I feel compelled to offer you . . . Too Much Information!
In many respects, the two teams are virtually identical offensively. Georgia averages 34.3 points per game, half a point ahead of the Central Florida Knights’ 33.8, although I’m pretty sure you can’t score half a point, regardless of what the Vegas oddsmakers predict. The Bulldogs have made 54 trips inside the red zone in twelve games, scoring 48 times. The Knights have made 57 trips inside the red zone in 13 games, scoring 48 times.
Where UCF holds the edge is in scoring defense, as the Knights allow 18.0 points per game (12th in Division I-A). The Bulldog D surrenders more than five additional points per game on average, conceding 23.1 ticks on the scoreboard each outing (49th in Division I-A). In losses to BCS conference opposition, the Knights gave up 28 points to an N.C. State Wolfpack outfit that averaged 32.6 points per game for the season and permitted 17 points to the Kansas St. Wildcats, who notched 33.6 points per outing over the course of the campaign.
It’s no secret that this game largely will be a showcase for a pair of stellar freshman quarterbacks, UCF’s Jeff Godfrey and Georgia’s Aaron Murray. Godfrey and Murray rank eighth and ninth, respectively, in the national passer efficiency ratings; the seven signal callers ahead of them in those standings include three seniors and four juniors, three of whom were Heisman Trophy finalists. The two starting quarterbacks in this year’s Liberty Bowl are the only two underclassmen among the country’s 19 most efficient passers.
Godfrey led his league in quarterback rating in a rookie season in which he completed a Division I-A best 68.4 per cent of his attempts, threw for 2,042 yards and 13 touchdowns, and tossed just six interceptions in 209 aerials. The Knight QB is particularly effective on opening drives, so this may be the game to trot out the new kickoff strategy of electing to receive. While Murray has a lower completion percentage (61.8%) and has thrown as many picks (6), the Bulldog signal caller has thrown for significantly more yards (2,851) and touchdowns (24) to earn praise from Dr. Saturday as the nation’s third-most underrated player.
Since both quarterbacks are freshmen, each has spent much of the season traveling along the learning curve. Here is how they have stacked up over the last four games for each:
Neither Godfrey nor Murray has thrown an interception in the last three games. Led by Sanders Commings, the Bulldog D has picked off 14 passes in twelve games, three of which were returned for touchdowns. Georgia ranks second in the SEC in turnover margin at +10. Led by Reggie Weams, the Knight D has picked off 15 passes in 13 games, five of which were returned for touchdowns. Central Florida ranks third in Conference USA in turnover margin at +4.
In 2010, Central Florida went 7-0 before crowds of 40,000 or fewer fans and 3-3 in the presence of more than 40,000 observers in the stands. With 42,000 or more in attendance, the Knights are 0-2. The Liberty Bowl seats 62,380. Let’s buy those tickets, people!
With Shaun Chapas sidelined by a career-ending injury and Caleb King likely out for the game, an anemic Bulldog rushing attack that ranks tenth in the SEC figures to be even less productive than usual. This is particularly bad news, in light of the fact that UCF fields the country’s tenth-best rush defense, which surrenders a hair over 110 yards per game on the ground. Fortunately, the Knights rank 43rd nationally against the pass, surrendering over 207 aerial yards per outing. Of the 31 touchdowns Central Florida has allowed in 2010, 21 have come by way of the forward pass. UCF undoubtedly will focus on shutting down the run in an effort to force Aaron Murray to beat the Knights with his arm. With A.J. Green (perpetrator of the season’s second-best play), Orson Charles, and their cohorts in the lineup, I feel pretty good about Murray’s ability to do just that.
The Red and Black allow the opposition to convert on third down 42.6 per cent of the time. That is the highest third-down conversion rate permitted by any SEC team. The Red and Black allow the opposition to convert on fourth down 42.9 per cent of the time. That is the lowest fourth-down conversion rate permitted by any SEC team.
It would be remiss of me not to mention Conference USA coach of the year George O’Leary, whose seven-year tenure in Orlando has produced a résumé that features a 44-44 won-lost record as the head coach of the Knights. Coach O’Leary, of course, guided the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets for seven full seasons from 1995 to 2001, as well as for the final three games of the Ramblin’ Wreck’s 1994 campaign. During that time, Coach O’Leary posted a 3-5 record against the Red and Black, with all three victories coming during a period in which the NCAA determined that the Engineers fielded numerous academically ineligible athletes in multiple sports over a period of several years due to administrative errors at the Institute, and with two of those three victories resulting directly from clearly blown officiating calls regarding fumbles. Since the end of his tenure with the Bulldogs’ in-state rival, Coach O’Leary has been at the center of additional controversies at Central Florida, as well. Also, Coach O’Leary has a northern accent so thick, it makes Bobby Cremins’s ears bleed, so, naturally, he fits right in at a Sunshine State tourist destination.
The Liberty Bowl will mark the Bulldogs’ 46th game against a current Conference USA team. The Athenians have gone 28-15-2 against the league’s present complement, with half of those wins and two-thirds of those losses coming against the Tulane Green Wave, a former SEC squad. In outings against clubs now competing in Conference USA, Georgia is 10-2 over the East Division, 8-1 with me in attendance, and 2-0 in bowl games.
In 2010, Georgia has gone 5-1 in Sanford Stadium and 1-5 in all other venues. The Liberty Bowl will not be played between the hedges.
As noted here at SB Nation, Phil Steele has determined that the Liberty Bowl features the widest gap in schedule strength of any Division I-A postseason pairing. The Red and Black faced the country’s 43rd-toughest slate, whereas the Knights only had to contend with the 114th most difficult schedule in the land. Since Georgia hung tough for three quarters or more in every loss and fell just short of being a good team, the battle-tested Bulldogs should be the better-prepared squad heading into their New Year’s Eve date in Memphis.
Since the Liberty Bowl began matching the Conference USA champion with an SEC also-ran, the games have been getting closer, most recently resulting in a three-point win by the Southeastern Conference representative. The only previous meeting between these two teams produced a one-point Georgia victory, and both oddsmakers and score projections point to a close contest.
After struggling all year long in games that were competitive at the start of the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs figured out how to win a close one in the season-ender against Georgia Tech. An eighth bowl win in Mark Richt’s ten-year tenure in Athens would be the logical and appropriate next step for the Bulldogs in shedding the deserved "underachiever" label and demonstrating that Todd Grantham has the Red and Black D headed in the right direction. The Bulldogs should be focused with a winning record on the line, secure in the knowledge that this game, while literally played on the last day of 2010, figuratively represents the initial outing of 2011.
Aaron Murray may be confident that Georgia is "gonna score 30 points in eight straight games," and The Ghost of Jay Cutler may think the ‘Dawgs are going to win by three touchdowns, but Central Florida’s defensive statistics suggest otherwise. In two previous bowl games against current Conference USA squads, the Bulldogs have averaged 22 points per game. Much water has flowed under many bridges since these two teams last met on the gridiron in 1999, but "the power of the world always works in circles, and everything tries to be round." That’s a fancy way of saying that I was in Sanford Stadium to see Georgia play Central Florida eleven years ago, and I will be in the Liberty Bowl to see Georgia play Central Florida on New Year’s Eve, and I think I will see the same final score on the board when the clock shows a trio of zeroes on December 31, 2010, that I saw on September 25, 1999.
My Prediction: Georgia 24, Central Florida 23.