MEMPHIS — George O'Leary has worked hard to build Central Florida into a top program. And the coach is looking to capitalize on his efforts with a profile-raising victory over Georgia in today's Liberty Bowl.
It would be UCF's first bowl victory — the satisfaction of knocking off an SEC team would be a bonus.
UCF (10-3), which began its football program in 1979, is playing in its second Liberty Bowl and fourth bowl overall, so it is no longer happy with just earning a postseason invitation.
And O'Leary's ambition lies 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. At 6-6, the Bulldogs want to avoid finishing below .500 for the first time since 1996.
"We fought hard to get to .500," coach Mark Richt said. "And now we've got our one and only chance to get above .500, which I think means a lot."
The Bulldogs started digging out of their 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 18½ tackles for a loss.
Georgia will be down a running back. Caleb King was suspended for academic reasons. That leaves most of the work to Washaun Ealey, who ran for 751 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Green is the player O'Leary is worried about most. The junior had a career day against Auburn with nine catches for 164 yards and two touchdowns.
"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. End Bruce Miller has 34 career sacks, and the Georgia native has plenty of motivation to chase down Murray because the Bulldogs didn't recruit him coming out of high school.
Murray, a graduate of Tampa's Plant High, ranks ninth in the nation in passing efficiency and threw for 2,851 yards. He ranks 33rd in total offense at 251.7 yards per game while throwing 24 touchdowns and six interceptions.
"He's playing like he's been there forever," Miller said. "He's playing great."
A late addition to the injury report
Georgia's mascot, Uga VIII, will miss today's Liberty Bowl due to an undisclosed illness. However, the school has turned to a reliable sub. Russ, the white English bulldog who served as the interim mascot after the death of Uga VII, will fill in. He was the mascot for the final two games of the 2009 season and first six games of this season.