ORLANDO, FLA. (AP) - Jamar Newsome was on Central Florida’s Conference USA title team in 2007. Not that he has a ring or anything else to show for it.
He never even played that season.
After staring at his teammates’ jewelry the last three years, the standout senior receiver is one of many who will have a chance to earn their own hardware when the Knights (9-3, 7-1 C-USA) host a revived SMU (7-5, 6-2) program in the league title game Saturday.
“Seeing their rings always motivates me,” Newsome said. “I love rings, for one. My grandfather used to always have like 10 rings on and I like them, too. It’s motivation just seeing them. I want to be a part of something like this and get one for myself. I’d wear mine for like 10 years straight and never take it off.”
That’s how much this one means.
The game is about the biggest championship these programs will play for all year. Conference USA is not an automatic-qualifier to the BCS, and the only thing likely for the winner is a trip to the Liberty Bowl to take on a Southeastern Conference school.
All year the league’s coaches call reaching this game their No. 1 goal.
Now it’s here.
“It’s the best thing you can do in the situation you are at,” UCF coach George O'Leary said. “The ultimate goal is to win your division initially and then the next game is the conference championship. That is as far as you can go in your conference. I think that is the ultimate goal as far as the conference is concerned. Our choice is to win the conference because that sort of dictates what happens with the rest of the bowls and everything else anyway.”
These programs and coaches can certainly relate.
They’ve both enjoyed rapid turnarounds after miserable starts _ O'Leary went winless in 11 games in his first season with the Knights in 2004, and June Jones wasn’t much better in his first season at SMU, going 1-11 in 2008.
This year punctuated their remarkable rises.
UCF jumped into The Associated Press Top 25 poll for the first in school history, although their No. 25 ranking lasted only a week before losing to Southern Miss. And the Mustangs, after going to their first bowl game in almost a quarter century last season, emerged out of Conference USA's West Division for the first time _ and in impressive fashion.
Not even their coach though it would be possible so soon.
“I would be lying if I said that, just like I would be lying if I said that we would win a bowl game last year,” Jones said. “It is a goal that we had and set for ourselves after our bowl game at the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl last year. We said that we wanted to take the next step and we did _ winning the West in the Conference. That was a positive step.”
This could be another.
The Mustangs will have to do it against dual-threat quarterback Jeff Godfrey, the nation’s highest rated true freshman with a 164.79 passer rating, 67.4 completion percentage, 529 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns rushing. He also has thrown for 1,875 yards and 12 touchdowns.
SMU counters with a strong offensive of their own.
Sophomore Kyle Padron has 3,306 yards passing, and Zach Line is averaging 108 yards rushing per game. In what has historically been a high-scoring contest, this year’s league title game is certainly expected to hold that trend.
“They’re a team that can relate to us,” Line said. “We’re a faster team, so we’ll see how that works out.”
But make no mistake: this one is all about the hardware.
And while most players on the field have never won a conference title, few even have a ring. Even the handful of UCF seniors who earned the jewelry in 2007 rarely, if ever, wear it because they weren’t major contributors as underclassmen.
“I look at my ring, but I don’t even wear it because I don’t have one to wear on both hands,” said Hallman. “When I get another one, I’ll wear both of them.”
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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