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Don't tell O'Leary: UCF is nearly bowl-eligible

By SHATON GINN
Published November 4, 2005


Don't look now, but UCF is a victory away from being bowl eligible.

Yes, that UCF, the team that in mid September was trying to end a 17-game losing streak that had made it the Division I-A equivalent of Mr. Irrelevant. Since an embarrassing 31-14 loss to USF on Sept. 17 - which caused some of the remaining UCF fans to question the wisdom of hiring coach George O'Leary nearly two years ago - the Golden Knights have won five of six, sit atop the Conference USA standings, and have a shot at earning their first bowl invitation.

You won't hear a peep of exultation from O'Leary, who only occasionally manages to sound mildly enthusiastic about what so far ranks as the best turnaround in the nation this year. But behind his back, the players are talking.

"Coach says take it game by game," freshman tailback Kevin Smith said. "But when he's not in the locker room, all we talk about is bowl games. Bowl games, bowl games, bowl games."

And the Golden Knights (5-3, 4-1) no doubt also are talking about the possibility of winning the conference title in their first year as a member. UCF leads the East Division, but needs another C-USA team to beat division foe Southern Miss (3-1 in league play), the only conference team to beat the Knights this year.

Saturday, UCF hosts Houston in a homecoming game that could be its most meaningful in years. The Cougars (4-3, 2-2), led by quarterback Kevin Kolb, have the conference's No. 1 offense (459 yards/game). A victory would mean the Golden Knights will go unbeaten in four home games.

"I think where the team has improved in my opinion, both offensively and defensively, is last year when a mistake was made, they would look around at each other to see who made the mistake," O'Leary said. "Now when there is a play broken ... they pretty much know who missed the assignment, which is a sign of growing up. Peer pressure starts to take over.

"I think this team has a lot of trust that their fellow players are going to do their job, and that the coaches are going to put them in the right position to make a play."

ACCIDENTAL RIVAL: The Florida State-Miami rivalry may get more press, but Hurricanes coach Larry Coker thinks his team's ongoing series with No. 3 Virginia Tech is as important as any it has played in recent years.

It's a game that, from a buzz perspective, "is still under the radar," Coker said. But it often is more meaningful, and this year he expects it will be a far more telling barometer of his team's progress than the ugly - on both sides - 10-7 loss to FSU in Game 1.

"We're a better team now," Coker said. "We're better on defense, and without question we're better as an offensive team."

LAST CHANCE: Bethune-Cookman has a shot at the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title, but the Wildcats (6-2, 3-2) have to get past Hampton at home Saturday.

It won't be easy. The Pirates (8-0, 6-0) are ranked No. 3 in I-AA and will be trying to clinch a share of their second straight MEAC title. But B-CC has done it before: In 2003, it ended Hampton's chances of going unbeaten in conference play with a 30-27 victory. Last weekend's 54-17 victory over North Carolina A&T gave the Wildcats confidence. Quarterback Jimmie Russell earned MEAC offensive player of the week honors for the third time this season. CHESTER, PART II: He may not end up keeping the starting job he got when Florida A&M's top two quarterbacks had to sit out last weekend with injuries. But Rattlers sophomore Albert Chester proved in a 27-16 victory over Morgan State that he is more comfortable taking charge than he was in brief stints earlier this season.

Chester, whose father, Albert, was the quarterback when FAMU won its I-AA national championship in 1978, rushed for 63 yards and two touchdowns, and completed 14 of 16 passes for 139 yards. With Josh Driscoll (groin) and Chris Owens (concussion) out, the coaches had spent a week designing the game plan to suit his skills.

"Albert really has great mobility and is very elusive in the open field," coach Rubin Carter said. "I thought he did a heck of a job of executing what we wanted. ... He's got a better feel now of how he fits into the overall scheme."