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December 28, 2006

Liberty Bowl: Houston vs. South Carolina

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Give me Liberty, or give me footballs flying through the air non-stop for a few hours.

This year's Liberty Bowl matchup figures to look something like the Holiday Bowl usually does. Conference USA champion Houston and South Carolina each can be expected to throw it 30-plus times. Why shouldn't they? Each team is ranked among the nation's top 25 in passing yards per game.

Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier believes his defense will have its hands full with a Cougars team that ranks sixth in the nation in total offense (439.8 yards per game) and 11th in scoring (32.8 points per game).

"They make a lot of yards and their quarterback, Kevin Kolb, is one of the best, another senior quarterback," Spurrier said. "Our defensive guys are really going to be challenged."

Kolb will be making his 50th consecutive start, tops among active Division I-A quarterbacks. He passed for more than 3,400 yards this season and had 27 touchdowns to just three interceptions.

"He can run and throw," Spurrier said. "He's a player that doesn't make a lot of mistakes. We have to get some pressure on him, turn our ends loose.

"They probably do a lot like Florida does, spread out and shotgun most the time."

At least the Gamecocks have a defensive coordinator who is familiar with Kolb and with Art Briles' scheme at Houston. South Carolina's Tyrone Nix was the defensive coordinator at Southern Miss when the Golden Eagles faced the Cougars in 2003-04. Southern Miss won both games.

"He has a better feel for us than someone who just stepped out of the car and onto the field," Briles said. "We have to execute and perform on the offensive side of the ball and we have to stop them on defense. We don't need to make something easy hard. If we take care of business and do what we are supposed to do, then there will be some people in red smiling."

Houston comes in carrying a six-game winning streak. But it's not the only hot team. South Carolina has won its past two, including an upset of rival Clemson in the regular-season finale. The Gamecocks also had Florida on the ropes in Gainesville, Fla., but they lost 17-16 when a field goal attempt was blocked as time ran expired.

Liberty Bowl: Houston (10-3) vs. South Carolina (7-5)
When: 4:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 29
Where: Liberty Bowl, Memphis
TV info: ESPN (John Saunders, Craig James, Doug Flutie and sideline reporter Todd Harris)
Houston Cougars
Conference: Conference USA
Record: 10-3, 7-1
Coach: Art Briles (26-23, fourth season)
Passing leader: Kevin Kolb (266 of 393, 3,423 yards, 27 touchdowns, three interceptions)
Rushing leaders: Anthony Alridge (85 carries, 904 yards, eight TDs), Jackie Battle (173 carries, 858 yards, 13 TDs)
Receiving leaders: Vincent Marshall (71 receptions, 778 yards, six TDs), Donnie Avery (50 receptions, 780 yards, five TDs)
Defensive leaders: S Will Gulley (93 tackles, five interceptions)
South Carolina Gamecocks
Conference: SEC
Record: 7-5, 3-5
Coach: Steve Spurrier (14-10, second season)
Passing leader: Blake Mitchell (116 of 173, 1,466 yards, six touchdowns, five interceptions)
Rushing leader: Cory Boyd (146 carries, 729 yards, six TDs)
Receiving leaders: Sidney Rice (64 receptions, 951 yards, nine TDs), Kenny McKinley (48 receptions, 768 yards, three TDs)
Defensive leaders: CB Fred Bennett (13 passes defended, two interceptions), LB Jasper Brinkley (96 tackles, 12.5 for loss, four sacks)
Houston running game vs. South Carolina run defense: The Cougars are capable of creating huge running lanes because they're so good passing the ball. Junior Anthony Alridge averages more than 10 yards per carry, and senior Jackie Battle picks up 5 yards per carry. Houston ranked 29th in the country in rushing (170.8 yards per game). The Gamecocks had their problems stopping the run this season, ranking 77th nationally (147.8 yards per game). Edge: Houston.
Houston passing game vs. South Carolina pass defense: This is a strength-on-strength matchup. Behind QB Kevin Kolb, the Cougars have one of the most prolific passing offenses in the country, ranking 12th nationally. Kolb makes excellent decision as evidenced by his touchdown/interception ratio. The Gamecocks ranked 22nd in pass defense and the same in scoring defense. They've given up yardage between the 20s, but stiffen in the red zone. Edge: Houston.
South Carolina running game vs. Houston run defense: The Gamecocks didn't run it as well as Steve Spurrier would have liked, but they did begin to find a rhythm on the ground over their final three games (175.3 yards per game in that stretch, and 5.8 yards per carry). All of those games were against bowl teams. The Cougars ranked 67th nationally against the run, yielding nearly 140 yards per game. Edge: South Carolina.
South Carolina passing game vs. Houston pass defense: The Gamecocks' aerial attack surged over the last half of the season. South Carolina finished its schedule against five bowl teams, and it averaged 298.3 passing yards in that stretch. The Cougars weren't very good against the pass this season, finishing 61st in the nation. Edge: South Carolina.
Houston coach Art Briles vs. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier: Briles has done a terrific job offensively, and it doesn't hurt to have a weapon like Kolb - who is a solid NFL prospect. But the Cougars have struggled defensively, and no coach can exploit a defense like Spurrier. The Gamecocks have played better quality opposition - particularly down the stretch - and should be up for this one. Edge: South Carolina.
Houston will win if: Kolb has a huge game, and the defense holds its own.
South Carolina will win if: It can keep the ball away from the Houston offense by having success on the ground.
Injury situation: Houston none. South Carolina none.
Worth noting: South Carolina is making its 13th bowl appearance. Its record in the postseason is 3-9, though it has won three of its last four. Houston is making its 17th bowl appearance. Its record in the postseason is 7-8-1, thought it has lost its last six bowl games in a row. Houston's first bowl appearance came in the 1951 Salad Bowl. The teams have met only twice, with the meetings occurring in back-to-back seasons beginning in 1973. The Cougars won both games. South Carolina is 4-0 outside of the SEC this season. Houston has had a streaky season. It opened by winning four in a row, lost three in a row then won its next six, including the Conference USA title game. The Gamecocks have not won a December game since 1960. They've lost their last 10 played in the final month of the year. Houston has played in the Liberty Bowl stadium already this season, beating host Memphis 23-20 in overtime. When Houston tops the 100-yard rushing mark it's 9-0 this season. Gamecocks kicker Ryan Succop is 15 of 18 on field goals this season, including 10 of 10 inside 45 yards.
Line as of 12/27: South Carolina by 5.5
Prediction: South Carolina 38, Houston 27.
Other Rivals.com Expert picks:
Olin Buchanan, national college football writer: South Carolina 24-17
Steve Megargee, national college football writer: South Carolina 24-21
Bobby Burton, editor-in-chief: South Carolina 28-24.
Bill King, RivalsRadio host: South Carolina 28-24.
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