December 31, 2010
Bowls: There are a lot of them. As a public service, the Doc is here to rank each game according to five crucial criteria, with help from the patron saint of the game in question. Today: The Liberty Bowl!
Teams. Central Florida Knights (10-3) vs. Georgia Bulldogs (6-6).
Particulars. Today, 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Favorite: Georgia (–6½)
Patron Saint: Memphis-born instrumentalist, songwriter, producer and arranger Booker T. Jones, frontman of Booker T. and the MGs, the house band that defined the "Stax sound" on blistering soul records throughout the sixties – much of which Jones spent shuttling back and forth between Memphis and the University of Indiana, where he was a full-time music student. Jones wrote the enduring Stax hit "Green Onions" in 1962, while still attending Booker T. Washington High.
• Locale. The most distinguishing feature of Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium has always been its odd shape, like the architect blew his standard bowl design in pottery class the night before and just turned in the warped results anyway. Skimpy in the end zone seats, ascending to a nice, full height at the 50, it makes sense, or sense enough, at least, for the four failed alterna-league teams that have set up here since the mid-seventies, all named after rejected X-Men characters: The Memphis Southmen (1974-75), the Memphis Showboats (1984-85), the Memphis Maniax (2001), and the CFL’s Memphis Mad Dogs (1995), as well as a hypothetical NFL franchise (the Memphis Hound Dogs) and the World Soccer League’s Memphis Rogues in the late seventies.
• Tradition. The Liberty Bowl began in Philadelphia in 1959 – hence the name – and was even staged one year (1964) in Atlantic City before becoming a Southern mainstay. Seven of the ten traditional (pre-1992) SEC teams won a Liberty Bowl game from 1965-92 – including Bear Bryant's final game, a 21-15 Alabama win over Illinois in 1982 – and relative newcomers Arkansas and South Carolina have both played in multiple Liberty Bowls. Air Force played in four straight games during the bowl’s brief dalliance with the winner of the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy from 1989-92, but the Liberty has found a nice fit since 1996 with Conference USA, which has sent its champion on to Memphis a reward for all 15 years of the league's existence.
• Swag. The Liberty appears to be the official bowl game of the almighty Swoosh: Players' gift bags include Nike training shoes, sport sandals, sunglasses and an Air Jordan backpack, the only Nike giveaways of the entire postseason. The iPod nano and Fossil watch are nothing to sneeze at, either.
• Sponsors, trophies and other ambiance. The Liberty Bowl joins the New Mexico Bowl in awarding one of the most distinctive trophies in sports: A one-quarter scale model of the original Liberty Bell, complete with "the same nicked edges, foundry marks, misspelled inscription and even the famous crack—all crafted to maintain the integrity of the Bell in every detail." Just to complete the exercise, Howard Schnellenberger (a Liberty Bowl winner with Louisville in 1993) will move the trophy under the cover of night from the winner's athletic department to a small church in Allentown, Pa., until the British are out of Philadelphia.
• This year's match-up. Don't be fooled by the point spread or Georgia's obvious talent advantage: The Bulldogs didn't beat a better team than Central Florida in the regular season, and the Knights come in rolling off eight wins in their last nine en route to the C-USA championship. All but one of those wins, a 40-33 cruise at Houston on Nov. 5, came by double digits.
As that final indicates, don't expect a tight defensive struggle, either. Both teams rang up at least 31 points in seven different games – and combined to give up 31 in eight.
• Star power. His protestations aside, this afternoon is almost certainly the last college game for Georgia receiver A.J. Green, whose return after a four-game suspension in September meant more to the offense than a few highlight-reel catches: After Green's return, the Bulldogs improved their output by 62 yards and two full touchdowns per game over the last two months, and won five of their last seven in the process.
And though they're not exactly stars (yet), don't sleep on either of the freshman quarterbacks, either: UCF's Jeff Godfrey and Georgia's Aaron Murray both finished among the nation's top 10 passers in efficiency rating.
Final rating: out of five.
Three straight C-USA champs – UCF in 2007 and East Carolina in 2008-09 – have blown games in which they led or were tied with a token SEC also-ran in the fourth quarter. The league is due some better luck.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.