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2010 AutoZone Liberty Bowl Preview

East Carolina (9-4, 7-1 Conference USA) vs. Arkansas (7-5, 3-5; SEC)

January 2nd, 2009 @ 5:30 PM (EST) – ESPN – Memphis, Tennessee

The Liberty Bowl is one of the longest-running postseason games in college football. Originally played in Philadelphia in 1959, the city of Memphis has hosted this showcase since 1965. Since 1996, the Liberty Bowl has been the home of the champion of Conference USA and their opponents in each of the last four years have hailed from the Southeastern Conference. Can the SEC extend their winning streak to four games?

East Carolina had a charmed season as they repeated as Conference USA Champions. After a slow 3-3 start, they rampaged to a 6-1 finish that included a big upset victory over Houston in the conference title game. The Pirates have been coached by Skip Holtz, son of legendary coach Lou Holtz, for the last five seasons and this will be their 4th consecutive bowl appearance. With a 38-26 record, Holtz has never posted a losing C-USA record and is considered one of the rising stars in the coaching profession. Can Holtz even his bowl record at 2-2 with a win in the Liberty Bowl?

ECU’s offense has not been particularly exciting. In fact, one East Carolina fan wrote to me that he wouldn’t be sad to see starting quarterback Patrick Pinkney graduate after this season! With a 56th ranked offense at 27.8 points per game, a 58th ranked passing game and the 59th ranked running game, the Pirates are the definition of average on offense. However, East Carolina is above average at protecting the football and Pinkney has directed two conference champions, so ECU does enough to win games, even if it can be infuriating to watch. I wouldn’t be looking forward to Pinkney graduating.

The real strength of Holtz’s team is on defense. While their 38 th ranked scoring average of 22.1 points per game is solid, they are very impressive against the run (35th) and in forcing turnovers as they finished 4th in the country with 33 takeaways. That leaves ECU with an extremely impressive +19 turnover margin. However, they’ve been terrible against the pass at 110th in the country and that is not a good sign going against an excellent Arkansas passing game.

Arkansas improved in their second season under former Louisville coach Bobby Petrino after missing the postseason last year. It shouldn’t be a surprise as Petrino’s career record as a college football head coach is an extremely impressive 53-21 and his teams were always among the best. Thanks to a four game winning streak late in the season, the Hogs put together a strong year and will be looking to build momentum towards a big 2010 season with a Liberty Bowl win.

The biggest reason for Arkansas’ improvement on offense can be summed up in two words: Ryan Mallett. The former top recruit transferred in from Michigan and was one of the country’s most dominant passers as he threw for 3,425 yards and 29 touchdowns against only seven interceptions as he led the Razorbacks to the 10th best finish through the air in the country. You have to wonder what Rich Rodriguez was thinking when he didn’t fight to keep Mallet in Ann Arbor, as he was the driving force behind the country’s 8th best scoring offense, which averaged 37.3 points per game this season. Arkansas has an extremely explosive offense.

Such a great offense was a necessity because the Razorbacks struggled severely at times on defense, finishing in the middle of the pack in scoring defense at 25.8 points per game. Arkansas was inexplicably poor against both the pass (104th) and run (67th) and the real reason for their decent finish was their impressive turnover margin, finishing +13 with 27 takeaways.

Considering that both teams are ranked in the top ten in turnover margin, the easiest assumption to make is that this game will be decided by whichever team does the best job at holding onto the ball. Both teams protect the football very well and both are very good at forcing opponents into mistakes. However, one major note is that East Carolina has turned the ball over a lot more often and that could be decisive.

In the end, this game has one major mismatch and that is Arkansas’ passing attack taking on East Carolina’s average pass defense. Ryan Mallett is one of the most talented players in the country and it looks like he’ll be able to pick apart the Pirate secondary and that will be the difference in what should be a close game between two strong teams. Arkansas will defeat East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl thanks to an overpowering passing game.

Liberty Bowl Pick: Arkansas 24, East Carolina 19


by Matt Baxendell
Bax is’s football writer. Keep an eye out for all 34 of his bowl previews! If you want to get in touch with him, email him at or follow him on Twitter @MattBaxendell

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