- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Back in July, Conference USA officials were scrambling to find a face for the league, a poster boy to plug their oft-overlooked product.
Four months later, they have a two-headed monster.
A league still lacking a dominant team is no longer starved for star power, especially at the running back position.
Tulane senior Matt Forte leads the nation in rushing yards (1,642) and rushing average (182.4). He's on pace to finish with the third-highest net total in NCAA history and the highest rushing average since TCU's LaDainian Tomlinson in 2000 (196.2 YPG).
A few stutter steps behind Forte is Central Florida's Kevin Smith, who ranks second nationally in both yards (1,448) and rushing average (160.9). Smith, who held the national rushing lead until Forte began putting up Xbox numbers, is the nation's scoring leader with 19 touchdowns (18 rushing, one receiving).
How good are these two?
Tulane coach Bob Toledo hates using superlatives, but he can't help gushing over Forte. Toledo likens the 6-foot-2, 223-pound senior to DeShaun Foster, whom he coached at UCLA, and Marcus Allen, whom he briefly coached as a defensive back at USC before "[John] Robinson took him to offense."
"He's exactly like Marcus," Toledo said of Forte. "I won't see another one like him in my lifetime. I'm sure of that."
UCF coach George O'Leary sees parallels between Smith and Joe Burns, the standout running back he coached at Georgia Tech.
"He's like most good running backs -- he cuts in the hole, not before," O'Leary said. "He has an endless future."
The real injustice for Conference USA fans is that Forte and Smith, whose teams play in different divisions, won't match up this season. Both backs have seen clips of the other on tape, and Forte admits to checking the rushing chart each week to see where he and Smith stack up.
"That'd be cool, the two top leading rushers to see who could do the best," Forte said of a potential meeting. "It's still good that the first two guys are from Conference USA. Maybe it'll give the conference a little publicity."
Both backs have taken similar paths to stardom.
For starters, neither was of any use at this time last season.
Forte suffered a season-ending knee injury while making a tackle after an interception against Marshall. A week later, Smith injured his shoulder against Memphis and underwent surgery shortly after the season.
Five weeks passed before Smith could lift a thing.
"I started from zero pounds," he joked. "My whole upper body was just back to nothing. I paid attention to the little muscles, things that make the core stronger.
"Also, when I couldn't do my upper body, that gave me a chance to focus on my lower body. This is the strongest my lower body has ever been."
Forte faced the opposite challenge: rebuilding his knee so he could excel in the run-first, run-often offense being installed by Toledo. His rehab and training reached an almost maniacal level this summer.
Every day, Tulane players would run and lift in two shifts. One group came in at 3 p.m. and the other at 5 p.m.
Forte didn't have a group.
"I'd go at 3, lift and run," he said. "Then I'd wait a little while and do some extra lifting and running with the second group also."
Both Forte and Smith were held out of contact in spring ball, and Forte didn't absorb his first hit until Tulane's season opener at Mississippi State. But the offseason toil is paying off for both backs.
On UCF's first play of the season at NC State, Smith took a handoff from Kyle Israel, followed his blockers to the right side and scooted through the defense for an 80-yard touchdown dash.
"I wouldn't expect anything like that in a million years," he said.
He finished with a career-high 217 rushing yards and two scores in UCF's win and followed with 149 yards and two scores against Texas. Smith has eclipsed 100 rushing yards in all but one game -- South Florida limited him to 55 –- and has gained 170 yards or more five times.
Five school records fell in UCF's win at Southern Miss on Oct. 28, as Smith captured the career rushing mark (currently 3,372 yards) and the top spot on the single-season touchdowns list (16) following his record 16th career 100-yard game.
He also set marks for rushing TDs in a season (16) and single-game carries (43).
"At the beginning of every game, the tempo's a little faster," Smith said, "but when the third series rolls around, everything's kind of in slow motion when I get the ball. It's just been me understanding the blocking and who's going to come off what linebacker when and where I need to start setting up.
"That's the difference this year."
The 6-1, 211-pound junior could turn in the most dominant season ever for a Division I-A running back at a Florida school. Smith needs 306 yards to surpass Willis McGahee's mark at Miami in 2002.
If he's not a No. 1 draft choice and an All-American, then I don't know what people have been watching.
Tulane coach Bob Toledo on Matt Forte
He's 15 carries shy of Emmitt Smith's record for rushing attempts (284 in 1989).
"Smith was a guy that we had a lot of trouble containing," Tulsa coach Todd Graham said. "He ended up breaking one after we were down a couple touchdowns. We tried to blitz, make something happen. Great players, they catch you in something and they make you pay."
Forte started slower, failing to rush for 100 yards in his first two games. He then detonated for a league-record 303 yards against I-AA Southeastern Louisiana before gaining only 73 yards against LSU, the nation's fourth-rated rush defense.
Since the LSU game, Forte has been nothing short of brilliant. He eclipsed 200 rushing yards in four consecutive weeks, resetting the league single-game record with 342 yards at SMU on Oct. 20. At his current pace, Forte will finish behind only Barry Sanders (2,628 in 1988) and Allen (2,342 in 1981) on the NCAA's single-season yardage list.
Said Toledo: "If he's not a No. 1 draft choice and an All-American, then I don't know what people have been watching."
Asked how UCF's offensive system helps him, Smith deadpanned, "'Cause we run a lot." Each season, O'Leary has tried to increase Smith's carries-per-game load by five.
Smith leads the nation in rushing attempts (269), 10 more than Forte, though O'Leary tries to rest the junior when the game is in hand. The Golden Knights are run-heavy, but Israel has been solid under center and the offense ranks 23rd nationally in scoring (36.1 PPG).
Forte's success is arguably more impressive, given Tulane's overall struggles on offense. The Green Wave (2-7) rank 100th nationally in pass offense and score only 22.4 points a game.
"They're putting eight, nine guys in the box," Toledo said of Tulane's opponents. "They're just daring us to throw the football, and if we could, we'd probably be a lot better off."
Forte spent his first three seasons in a shotgun-heavy offense, getting no more than 34 carries in a game. He already has received 38 or more three times this season, racking up 90 more carries than he had in any previous season.
"It's no secret that we're going to run the ball," Forte said. "We gear up for that in practice with people stacking the box on the scout team, mostly seven-man boxes and they roll the safety down. It's going to make me a tougher running back and have better vision.
"On the next level, it will help me."
Reaching the next level shouldn't be a problem for Forte.
Twenty-three NFL scouts representing 19 teams have attended Tulane games this season, with eight scouts or personnel directors showing up for last week's game against Tulsa. Several teams, including the Colts and Raiders, have sent scouts for multiple games.
They aren't coming to see a 2-7 squad.
"He reminds me of what you look for if you were a professional football team," said UTEP coach Mike Price, whose team visits Tulane on Saturday. "He's not real jitterbuggy. He's got really good speed, he's hard to tackle, he's strong, he's a competitor.
"He's a true All-American."
With a year of eligibility left, Smith plans to discuss his draft status with O'Leary following the season. The running back class should be deep, but Smith's stock rises each week.
"To me, it's a numbers game," O'Leary said. "If you're not going to be definitely a No. 1 draft choice, you're nuts to come out because you cost yourself a lot of money."
Added Smith: "Whatever [O'Leary] says I should go with, that's probably what I'll do. We'll sit down together and talk about it, but for now, I plan on coming back my senior year."
The league would love to have him back. After a season like this, Smith would no longer be a state secret.
"It's always good to hear someone say, 'I saw your picture in the paper,' or, 'I read about you in the magazine,'" Smith said. "But that's not my focus. I just enjoy playing the game."
Adam Rittenberg covers college football for the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.
1dSam Khan Jr.