Bowl Breakdown: Liberty

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t1_kevinsmith.jpg's Gennaro Filice analyzes the matchup.

In his fourth year at Mississippi State, Sylvester Croom has directed his first winning campaign. The breakthrough season has been highlighted by road wins over Auburn and Kentucky, a 17-12 victory over Alabama (a team that passed Croom up in favor of Mike Shula) in Starkville, and a thrilling come-from-behind win over Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. Croom earned SEC Coach of the Year honors for guiding the Bulldogs to their first bowl since 2000.

Even though the team made dramatic overall improvements in '07, the offense continued to struggle. Mississippi State averaged just 305.33 yards, worse than 111 schools. The Bulldogs' best offensive producer is RB Anthony Dixon (980 rushing yards, 13 TDs), but he hasn't run for 100 yards since an Oct. 13 loss to Tennessee.

Mississippi State's defense has been Jekyll and Hyde this season. In the Bulldogs seven wins, no opponent scored more than 17 points (averaging 14.14). But in Mississippi State's five losses, opponents averaged 39.8 points. Defensive end Titus Brown sets the tone up front, and first-team All-SEC free safety Derek Pegues is a dangerous playmaker in the secondary.

The Knights feature the best player you've never heard of: RB Kevin Smith. With 2,448 yards rushing (and 30 total touchdowns), the junior back is 180 yards shy of Barry Sanders' all-time, single-season record. Averaging 188.31 yards per game, the nation's leading rusher has piled up 1,000 yards ... over his last four games.

Much like Mississippi State, UCF has been up-and-down defensively. But the Knights are coming off back-to-back stellar performances. In UCF's final regular season game, the Knights held Trevor Vittatoe and high-flying UTEP to 20 points. Then in a 44-25 win over Tulsa in the Conference USA championship game, UCF overwhelmed the nation's No. 1 offense. Star CB/PR Joe Burnett is one of the most explosive playmakers in the conference. The junior led C-USA with six interceptions and had an 83-yard punt-return touchdown in the conference title game.

Even though Smith is putting together one of the greatest seasons ever for a college running back, he wasn't even seriously considered for any national awards. UCF's schedule definitely didn't help his cause -- the Knights played nine rushing defenses ranked in the bottom quarter of the nation. Regardless, Mississippi State ranks just 65th in rushing defense. Here's to guessing Smith sets the all-time mark.

The pick: UCF 31, Mississippi State 21