Joking from the minute he stepped into the heated conference room in Memphis, Tennessee, George O’Leary looked calm and collected for the game.
“I may be a real enthusiastic guy,” warned O’Leary at the start of the conference. “Anytime you can get a bowl game near January 1st, it is a great thing. It is a great thing to be playing a tough University of Georgia squad too.”
The UCF Knights finished the season 10-3, beat the SMU Mustangs at home to win the Conference USA title, and now have a battle in store with the 6-6 Georgia Bulldogs, a perennial SEC (South Eastern Conference) powerhouse that have clawed their way back into the AutoZone Liberty Bowl after starting the season 1-4.
“We have to be very productive on offense, and defensively tackle very well, and control the field position through special teams. We need to stay away from penalties, that’s what it comes down to. Penalties, and changing the field over.”
Both teams have stellar special teams play, Georgia having an all-SEC kicker in Blair Walsh, and the nation’s top punter in Drew Butler, who is averaging just over 48 yards per punt this season.
Georgia also ranks second in the FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) in kicking coverage, where UCF ranks fifth in special teams offensively; so field position will be paramount in what will most likely be a much warmer, but much slipperier game than either side expected.
“Well, down in Orlando, we don’t get any rain,” joked O’Leary. “We had a few practices back in Orlando where it was raining before we came up, and we were able to have a full practice in it yesterday, so hopefully everyone could get a feel for the wet ball.”
O’Leary wasn’t shy on who he was keeping an eye on defensively either; junior wide-out A.J. Green; among the tops in the SEC in receptions per contest (5.3) as well as yards (80.8.)
“He has great game concentration and once he gets it, there’s a lot of hidden yards there we need to stop. They’ve been 5-2 since he started playing and it’s because they’re so worried about him they need to shift more guys over to cover him. He deserves a man or two on passing plays.”
O’Leary kept going back to UGA’s record, adding that they “really aren’t a 6-6 team from my perspective, their expectations keep rising and going up, and have a lot of talent, just watch some film.”
With a possible Big East Conference bid possibly waiting to see how the Knights perform in the Liberty Bowl, O’Leary addressed how his players were handling the pressure of the bowl, and showed praise for Conference USA at the same time, saying that the conference has “treated us very well, and we will do what’s best for the program.”
“I think a few years ago, when we made this bowl, we were all just really excited to get a bowl bid. It was the next step at that point, and it was a huge step for the university. The ultimate goal of a bowl game though is to win it, enjoy the festivities, but win it and we’re here to do whatever we have to in all three phases to get a win. It will be a difficult chore against a very good football team that I am very impressed with from a talent standpoint.”
The team spirit was present even in the interview room while O’Leary was on the stand.
“Is it true you hate the color red?” Asked one of the participating reporters.“I hate red.” Answered O’Leary. “I hate the color red, but it’s fine as long as you’re not the ones who change jerseys every game, that can get annoying.”
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