The 2009 AutoZone Liberty Bowl will showcase two teams that have played with heart and determination all season.
These two teams will come in under different circumstances, however.
East Carolina comes to Memphis after shocking the college football ranks and winning the Conference USA championship in consecutive years, a feat that had previously not been achieved. Arkansas comes into town following an overtime loss to rival LSU.
Although the paths that led them to the Liberty Bowl may differ, it was an equally tough year for both programs.
Both teams opened the season at 1-2, ECU with a five-point win over Appalachian State and Arkansas a 38-point victory over Missouri State. The next two games were unkind to both squads, ECU losing to West Virginia and North Carolina and Arkansas losing to Georgia and Alabama.
Then both teams went on two-game winning streaks with wins over UCF and Marshall for ECU and Texas A&M and Auburn for the Hogs.
The remaining similarities are these wins were followed by a loss and both teams racked up four-game winning streaks at the end of the schedule.
What I would like to talk about is cold hard facts.
I know that college football is chock full of parity. That's why I love the game. The little guy can beat the big guy. If you need an example of that, ask Michigan about Appalachian State.
Now I want to lay out exactly what to expect if the game were played on paper, just to give whoever may read this an idea of what to expect.
East Carolina is a run first offense that uses the spread once the running game has loosened the defense. If you look at the stats, you will be deceived by the numbers.
ECU averages 367.6 total yards per game, 218 of them passing with only 149.6 rushing.
Arkansas' defense has allowed 150 yards rushing per game and 251.7 yards passing per game on average for a total of 401.7 yards per game.
On the flip side, Arkansas' offense has proven to be an explosive offense that can score quickly, averaging 439.3 total yards per game with 303.3 of that total being passing yards and 136 yards rushing. There is nothing deceiving about those numbers. Arkansas is a pass first, ask questions later type of team.
Arkansas is going to come out and dare ECU's defense to stop them from throwing the ball. While coach Bobby Petrino will more than likely try to pound the ball up the middle and around the end from time to time, you go with what got you there.
ECU's defense has allowed an average of 123.3 yards rushing per game and 262.3 yards passing per game for a total of 385.6 total yards per game.
While those are important numbers that you can use as a guideline, they are not important.
When it comes to scoring, ECU's offense has averaged 27.8 points while allowing 22.1 per game.
Arkansas averages 37.3 while allowing 25.8 per game.
Even these numbers cannot calculate a winner. It all comes down to which team wants it more, which team can impose its will on the opposing team. That's the whole ideology behind football when you get right down to the bottom of it.
I have seen ECU play, and they are a well-coached team that executes. I would expect nothing less from a coach Skip Holtz team.
The defensive line is home to NFL prospects. That's where ECU will either win or lose this game.
I say that to say this: If you have watched Arkansas play this year, then you have seen that the defense is not a dominant force on the field.
To beat Arkansas is to outscore them.
If ECU's defense can step up to the challenge and keep Ryan Mallett off balance and on the move, they will have a legitimate shot at winning.
If the Pirates give Mallett time to sit in the pocket, he will use his arm to beat them.
Now I know that East Carolina fans don't want to hear about the SEC, but you need to face the facts. The SEC has shown time and again the difference in talent level. There is a difference in size, speed, and strength.
I'm not saying the difference is between the SEC and Conference USA; I'm saying it's between the SEC and the rest of the country. Florida and LSU have shown that the past three years in the BCS title game.
Before you say well, my team has SEC-caliber players, I'm not saying your team doesn't. I'm saying that SEC teams have more.
It's not a handful of players that creates that curve in talent; it's the depth on each team. You can have 11 SEC-caliber players with a second and third string filled with Ivy League players and still play a good game. But eventually that lack of depth will begin to show. I've seen it time and time again.
With that being said, I'm not trying to take a shot at ECU or any other team.
Aside from the statistics I have pointed out, everything that I have said is my opinion—nothing more and nothing less. I'm 100 percent positive that no one person will see things the exact same way as me, but that's the beauty of an opinion. Nobody has to.
While I think the first half will be a good solid game, I feel that Arkansas will pull away in the second half. When all is said and done, I fear that the predicted over/under will be greatly surpassed. But then again, so could the spread.