2009 Liberty Bowl Preview
by Josh Nagel - 12/19/2008
East Carolina (9-4) vs. Kentucky (6-6)
Conference Matchup: Conference USA vs. SEC
Date: Jan. 2, 2009
Location: Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Memphis, Tenn.
Spread: Kentucky -2.5, total 41
This game involves a meeting between one team that went from potential BCS Buster to unlikely Conference USA Champion and an SEC club that was decimated by injuries and seemed to struggle to keep its head above water all season. The fact that Kentucky is a slight favorite here shows the ultimate respect the Wildcats are being given for playing the rugged SEC. Whether they deserve that much of a nod is another question. They were just 2-6 in the SEC and each of their wins was by exactly one point. Despite staying respectable in each contest - they didn't lose an SEC game by more than seven points - Kentucky failed to cash in winnable home games against South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Georgia. Even so, 6-6 might be respectable given that the Wildcats were hampered by injuries to key playmakers and played an inexperienced quarterback following the departure of Andre Woodson.
East Carolina, on the other hand, was given way too many props, too soon. Early upset wins over Virginia Tech and West Virginia had every pundit and analysts declaring them the next BCS Buster. But after the Pirates lost in overtime to North Carolina, they were never heard from again. At least not from the experts who were salivating over them just a week earlier. To some degree, they earned their exit from the national spotlight, following up that first loss with two blowout defeats to marginal teams in Virginia and Houston. They went from BCS Buster to a 3-3 team going nowhere in a hurry. But just as quietly as they dropped from the national spotlight, the Pirates quietly put together a nice second-half comeback, winning six of their last seven and capturing the C-USA crown with a dominant performance over heavily-favored Tulsa on the road.
By the time this game takes place, this easily could be another "the coach has already left" bowl, as East Carolina's Skip Holtz has had his name tossed out for numerous coaching vacancies. Holtz turned down Syracuse but still may surface elsewhere. Keep an eye on him particularly if Notre Dame loses to Hawaii in its bowl game; the Irish could be his next stop.
East Carolina can cover if: The Pirates can cover if they play the way they did to start and finish the season, using a stingy defense and opportunistic offense to take control of games. Turnovers played a huge role in their win over Tulsa, as they turned two early ones into points, then got a late interception to seal the 27-24 win. Quarterback Patrick Pinkney might not be as good as his early-season hype, but he is still an above-average athlete and excellent leader. He threw for 2,379 yards and 12 touchdowns against seven interceptions.
If ECU shows the big-play ability that it has flashed at times and can keep Kentucky at bay, there's a good chance the Pirates could win this game because they are the more polished team on offense and the defenses are about even. They snuck up Boise State last year as 11-point underdogs and, while they are not as unknown this year, they are still fighting for respect.
Kentucky can cover if: The Wildcats can win in one of two ways; one is if they get some big plays out of an offense that had been dormant until new quarterback Randall Cobb injected some athleticism into the lineup. The second way is their old reliable method: keeping the game low-scoring and ugly and simply hoping to come out on top at the end. For their sake, they should hope for the former, because it's likely that East Carolina will put up some points in this one. It was agonizing to watch Kentucky at times this year as its solid defense (ranked 38th nationally) kept the Wildcats in most games, such as a 17-14 loss to Alabama and a 24-17 loss to South Carolina. But it was downright painful most of the time to watch their offense plod along under immobile quarterback Mike Hartline, who eventually gave way to Cobb, and a group of less-than-breathtaking position players. This game might be the ultimate measuring stick of just how tough the SEC is, because Kentucky hasn't done a lot to deserve being a favorite here.
General Notes: These teams haven't met since 1993, when Kentucky posted a 6-3 win over East Carolina. No word yet from the Pirates on whether revenge is a factor in this one. East Carolina is 5-8 ATS this year, while Kentucky is 5-6 with one unlined game.