MEMPHIS, Tenn. It's all about Kevin Smith.
The Liberty Bowl on Saturday offers plenty of story lines. There's Sylvester Croom's revitalization of moribund Mississippi State and George O'Leary's resurrection of Central Florida and his career. But all anyone wants to talk about is Smith's chase of Barry Sanders' single-season rushing record. Everyone except Smith, that is.
"If I get 50 yards and we beat Mississippi State, I'm the happiest guy in the world," he said. "If we get to 11 wins and I get to be on the field, I'm the happiest man in the world."
Smith needs 181 yards to break Sanders' record of 2,628 yards, set in 1988 at Oklahoma State. The junior pushed Central Florida (10-3) to seven straight wins and the Conference USA championship in the fourth year of O'Leary's tenure which began with a winless season in 2004 after a padded resume cost him a job at Notre Dame.
The Bulldogs (7-5), in the midst of a feel-good run after six years of three wins or less and three years of NCAA probation, want to keep the good vibes rolling for Croom, the 2007 Southeastern Conference coach of the year. Croom, the first black coach in the SEC, was under intense pressure to win and finally did. Letting Smith run all over them on the way to a Liberty Bowl victory is not in the Bulldogs' game plan.
"He's a great running back, but we've already played against two great running backs in (Tulane's) Matt Forte and (Arkansas') Darren McFadden," Mississippi State safety Derek Pegues said. "We respect him, but we don't fear him."
There is reason to be leery, at least. Smith ran for an 80-yard touchdown the first time he touched the ball for the Knights this season and hasn't slowed down since. Smith rushed for less than 124 yards just once while setting single-season and career marks at Central Florida for touchdowns (30 and 46) and yards (2,448 and 4,560). And he's done it in a lot of different ways. He rushed for 320 yards and four touchdowns against Alabama-Birmingham, 284 yards and four more scores against Tulsa in the league title game and racked up 149 yards and two touchdowns against then-No. 6 Texas.
He finished with nation-leading averages of 188.3 yards and 13.9 points per game, scoring from 80 or more yards out three times. But he also had 39 or more carries in four games and has 415 going into the bowl.
Croom calls him one of the "smartest runners" he's seen.
"He has the explosiveness to get through the hole before the linebackers get there," said Croom, who coached Sanders as a Detroit Lions assistant.
"If the linebackers can fit the holes and stop him before he really gets going, then you've got a chance. But if he gets to the second level of your defense into the secondary level running with a full head of steam, then you've got a problem."
Smith, who recently announced he'd return for his senior season, is not old enough to remember watching Sanders, an elusive cut-back runner who was impossible to hem in for four quarters. As Smith passed runners such as Marcus Allen and LaDainian Tomlinson in his pursuit of Sanders, he got curious.
"When I found out I was close to his record, I did YouTube him and I'm nothing like that," Smith said. "I'll just be honest. Barry is awesome. He was a man among boys. Barry was an animal."
The Bulldogs are quick to point out that the Knights aren't powered by a single source. The offensive line is beefy and fleet, and quarterback Kyle Israel has taken advantage of defenses stacked to stop the run to complete 59.9 percent of his passes for 2,085 yards with 15 touchdowns and just eight interceptions.
Mississippi State has spent the requisite amount of time in practice working on stopping Central Florida's other working parts, but defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said his mind won't often stray from the Bulldogs' toughest task.
"You always worry about (the pass), but I don't think you can take any attention off of (Smith)," Johnson said. "The statistics are proven. You rush for that many yards, you've got to put that first. You've got to stop that."