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Tommy West has been coaching since 1979, but never in his career has he had a team that's had to face the nation's top rusher twice in the same season.

Four weeks into the year, West's Memphis team headed to UCF to take on the country's then-No. 1 rusher, Kevin Smith. Five games later, the Tigers were again facing the nation's top runner, this time it was Tulane's Matt Forte.

Conference USA is well represented among the national rushing leaders, with Forte at No. 1 (1,539 yards), Smith second (1,260) and Houston's Anthony Aldridge 10th (1,063). Only the Big Ten has more backs in the top 10 with four.

"When you look at those backs, and of course there's other backs in the league, the one at Southern Miss [Damion Fletcher] is pretty good ... there's just a lot of really good skill players," West said. "It may not be as good offensive and defensive lines as a lot of the BCS schools, but from a skill players standpoint, I think this league is outstanding."

And this season it all starts with Forte and Smith. The two record-breaking backs don't pay attention to each other's statistics, and have only met once, at the C-USA media days in New Orleans, but it's becoming increasingly harder for one to shake the other.

"Each week it's like they're looking at the other one to see if they catch each other and they're kind of raising the bar," said Tulane running backs coach Greg Davis Jr.

Smith set the tone early, taking the first handoff of the season for a school-record 80-yard touchdown against North Carolina State and finishing the game with a career-high 217 yards. But Forte has taken it to a level no other player has reached this season. The 6-foot-1, 211-pounder has the nation's two highest rushing games so far, going for a C-USA record 303 yards against Southeastern Louisiana and 342 against SMU four games later.

"I never would have thought [about] 300-yard games, even one," Forte said. "I wouldn't even thought that. To have two -- that's amazing."

It's even more of a surprise considering Forte was coming off a knee injury that caused him to miss the last three games of his junior year, and the Green Wave offensive line was largely inexperienced entering this season. But first-year coach Bob Toledo installed an offense that featured the tailback and Forte is carrying the ball 29 times a game, including a career-high 44 against Memphis. He's averaging 6.6 yards per carry despite seeing eight- and nine-man fronts that know No. 25 is going to get the ball time and time again.

"The more times I get the ball, the more chances I have to make plays," Forte said. "This is my senior season and I've been making the most of it every time I carry the ball."

Forte credits his productivity and durability to his offseason regimen. Knowing he was going to get more carries in Toledo's offense -- and to prove he was showing no effects from the injury -- he took part in both of Tulane's daily summer workouts.

"I would run twice a day and lift, most of the time, twice a day," Forte said. "Once my body got used to doing that I figured the season would be easy for me."

It didn't exactly start out that way, though. Forte had 47 yards in the season opener against Ole Miss and 85 the next week against Houston. But it was the third game of the season when he opened eyes with the first of his 300-yard games. Since then, he's only had one game with less than 200 yards (a 73-yard day against LSU). He is one 200-yard performance shy of tying the NCAA record of five straight shared by Marcus Allen, Barry Sanders and Jamario Thomas.

"He has real good vision," Houston defensive coordinator Alan Weddell said. "It takes more than one person to bring him down and I think he carries his pads well. I think he is faster in pads than people give him credit for."

As productive as Forte has been, it hasn't produced wins for the Green Wave. Tulane is 2-6, losing its first three games by 21, 24 and 25 points, but since Forte has heated up, its last three losses have come by a total of six points.

"We've lost some close ones," Davis said. "But it's a lot of fun to have a guy that's special like him and see the types of things that he's able to do on the football field."

Forte, who entered the season with 2,138 career yards, is in the midst of his first monster season. But Smith is picking up where he left off.

After running for 1,178 yards in '05, Smith missed one game last season for violating a team rule, then missed the final two games of the year with a shoulder injury, finishing with 934 yards. The 6-1, 211-pounder kicked off his junior season with the career-day against N.C. State, and then followed it by putting a major scare into Texas with 149 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-32 loss. He's put up at least 124 yards in every game except against South Florida, which held him to 55 yards.

"Kevin Smith has a lot of what Matt has," Davis said. "He's got speed enough to run away from you but he's got enough strength to make tough yards when he needs to."

Smith has thrived in a workhorse role, carrying the ball more than any back in the country with 240 attempts, including a school-record 43 tries against Southern Miss.

"[It felt] like a job," Smith said. "You don't really know how many carries you got until somebody tells you after the game. [I would have guessed] about 30, what I usually get every game."

When Smith was being recruited, plenty of schools wanted him in the backfield -- the defensive backfield. He switched from running back to safety his senior season at Miami's Southridge High and the likes of Akron and Colorado State were more interested in keeping him there. But UCF coach George O'Leary didn't forget Smith's ability to run the ball.

With 3,372 yards, Smith has already become the Golden Knights' career leading rusher just three years into his career, passing Alex Haynes' previous mark of 3,359 last week against Southern Miss. Smith ran 43 times for 175 yards and two TDs in the 34-17 win and set five school records, including carries in a game, rushing and total touchdowns in a season (16) and career 100-yard games (16).

"He's making cuts that are hard to teach," O'Leary said. "You either have it or you don't have it, and like most good backs he cuts into the hole, not before. He just has the knack of seeing things and making the cut."

Most importantly, Smith has also helped keep UCF in contention for the C-USA title. The 5-3 Golden Knights are tied for second-place in the East division with Memphis, but UCF holds the tiebreaker, having beaten the Tigers 56-20.

Forte holds a 279-yard edge on Smith and leads third-place Eugene Jarvis of Kent State by 280 yards (even though Jarvis has played one more game). The duel of Forte and Smith, whether they admit they're paying attention or not, will have to be strictly on paper: Tulane and UCF don't meet this season.

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