George O'Leary has worked hard trying to build Central Florida into a top program and the Knights are looking to capitalize on his efforts with a profile-raising victory over Georgia in the Liberty Bowl.
Central Florida can notch its first bowl victory by beating the Bulldogs in Memphis, Tenn., on Friday. The satisfaction of knocking off a Southeastern Conference power would be a bonus.
Central Florida (10-3), which began its football program in 1979, is playing in its second Liberty Bowl berth and fourth overall, and is no longer happy with just earning a postseason invitation. UCF now ranks as the second-largest university in the nation behind Arizona State, and school officials have goals beyond Conference USA.
"The ultimate goal of a bowl is to win," O'Leary said Thursday. "The more you win the more recognition you get. The more recognition you get, I think we'll be on the lips of a lot of people when it comes to the geography change when they start changing the conferences and stuff.
"... All we can do ... is to win the game you have at hand, and hopefully it helps people make a decision."
Georgia's high expectations for this season were derailed by a 1-4 start. Receiver A.J. Green was suspended by the NCAA for four games after selling a bowl jersey for $1,000, and that start landed the Bulldogs in the Liberty Bowl for the third time but first since 1987.
They want the win to avoid finishing below .500 for the first time since 1996, when they finished 5-6.
"We fought hard to get to .500 after a 1-4 start, and now we've got our one and only chance to get above .500, which I think means a lot," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "1996 was the last time a Georgia team did not do that, and we'd rather keep it that way if we can."
Georgia knows a lot about bowl games. The Bulldogs are playing in their 46th all-time and 14th straight. Richt is 7-2 since taking over in 2001 and 41-5 in nonconference games. His postseason losses came in the 2001 Music City Bowl to Boston College and the 2006 Sugar Bowl to West Virginia.
"In terms of college football, if you're 1-4 at Georgia, that's adversity," Richt said.
The Bulldogs started digging out of that hole once Green returned and redshirt freshman quarterback Aaron Murray began developing. Georgia's revamped 3-4 defense came together with linebacker Justin Houston leading the SEC with 10 sacks. He also ranked second in the league with 18 tackles for a loss.
Georgia will be down a running back Friday. Caleb King was suspended for the game for academic reasons, leaving most of the work to Waushaun Ealey. He ran for 751 yards and 11 touchdowns, but Georgia also worked fullback Alexander Ogletree as a possible third back to go with Fred Munzenmaier.
Green is the player O'Leary is worried about most. The receiver had a career day against Auburn with nine catches for 164 yards and two TDs.
"They've been 5-2 since he started playing," O'Leary said. "That's because people are putting extra people over there in the pass game to take care of him, which opens up the run game. He deserves a man and a half, two men on passing downs."
Green credited his family and teammates with getting him through the consequences of what he called an honest mistake. He said he knew the rules but didn't realize it was that big a deal.
"My job is to play football and follow the rules," Green said.
UCF counters with C-USA's best defense, a unit that ranked 18th nationally. Defensive end Bruce Miller has 34 career sacks, and the Georgia native has plenty of motivation to chase down Murray since the Bulldogs didn't recruit him coming out of high school as an undersized lineman.
Murray ranks ninth in passing efficiency and threw for 2,851 yards. He ranks 33rd in total offense, averaging 251.7 yards per game. He's been good with the ball throwing for 24 TDs with only six interceptions. That's helped the Bulldogs rank 17th nationally in turnover margin at plus-10.
The Knights returned five of their interceptions for touchdowns this season, and sophomore cornerback Josh Robinson has broken up 12 passes. Miller has been impressed by watching Murray on film.
"He's playing like he's been there forever. He's playing great," Miller said.
The defensive end will have about 45 members of his family and friends at the game.
"They better be in black and gold, I know that," he said.