Playing in their first January bowl game in 17 years as the culmination to an already memorable season was enough to make this one of East Carolina's best years in recent history. The decision by coach Skip Holtz to remain with the program gives the Pirates even more reason to be excited for the future.
East Carolina takes on Kentucky in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis on Jan. 3, looking for its first 10-win season since 1991.
The Pirates' matchup against the Wildcats caps a season which began with back-to-back wins over Top 25 teams Virginia Tech and West Virginia. East Carolina (9-4) rose to No. 14 in the polls but then lost three straight games. It finished the season with wins in six of seven, including a 27-24 victory over Tulsa on Dec. 6 for the Conference USA title, East Carolina's first conference crown since winning the Southern Conference in 1976.
This is the third consecutive bowl game for the Pirates, who beat Boise State 41-38 in the Hawaii Bowl in 2007, and lost to South Florida in the Papajohns.com Bowl in 2006. It's also the first January bowl game for the team since a 37-34 victory over N.C. State in the 1992 Peach Bowl
"It's going to be a phenomenal trip," said Holtz, in his fourth season at East Carolina. "This is what we've talked about beginning with the first day of practice -- the road to Memphis and what we've got to do to get there. I can't tell you how excited we are as a program and as a university to be there."
The increased attention to East Carolina fueled speculation Holtz would leave for a more high-profile program, but he put the rumors to rest by withdrawing his name from consideration for the head coaching position at Syracuse.
"While it is always flattering for others to have an interest in your abilities, I simply am too focused on our preparations for the bowl game and many other of our short and long-term goals to fairly evaluate what I feel is a promising situation at Syracuse." Holtz said.
The Pirates' 2008 season is made all the more impressive considering they rank 83rd in the nation in total offense with 336.0 yards per game and 78th in points at 23.8 per game. Quarterback Patrick Pinkney was effective, throwing for 2,379 yards, 12 touchdowns and only seven interceptions in 13 games. He completed 62.7 percent of his passes and threw for at least 200 yards seven times.
The Wildcats (6-6), meanwhile, will likely have their backup quarterback under center after starter Randall Cobb underwent knee surgery on Dec. 2 and likely will be unavailable. Mike Hartline would start in his place after losing his starting job last month after struggling against Florida and Mississippi State. He's thrown eight touchdowns and seven interceptions this season while completing 54.6 percent of his passes.
"He (Hartline) is throwing the ball and doing some very good things," coach Rich Brooks said. "The receivers are catching it better, so hopefully that will transmit to the game."
The Wildcats are also hoping their defense, which was stellar at the start of the season but struggled in the second half, can help make up for the uncertainty of the offense. Kentucky held its first seven opponents to an average of 11.9 points, but it gave up an average of 35.4 in the last five games, including 63 to Florida and 42 to Georgia.
Kentucky lost three straight to end the season, but is appearing in its third consecutive bowl game -- tying a school record set from 1950-52, when they made three consecutive January bowl appearances.
Last season the Wildcats beat Florida State 35-28 in the Music City Bowl.
"All I heard after the last year was, 'Well, Kentucky's success is measured in two-year cycles,'" Brooks said. "We want to make sure that is not the case. We want it to be not only three in a row, but four, five and six in a row. We have a lot of work to do. For the seniors going out, this is their last opportunity to do something significant; players returning, they need to keep that streak alive."
Kentucky won the only previous game between the teams, 6-3 on Nov. 13, 1993.
AccuScore has powered more than 10,000 simulations for every College Football game on ESPN.com, calculating how each team's performance changes in response to game conditions and opponent's abilities. Each game is simulated and the game is replayed a minimum of 10,000 times to generate forecasted winning percentages.
The time off should be especially beneficial for Kentucky, which looked like it might be running out of gas toward the end of the season. The Wildcats (6-6) lost four of their last five games and go up against an East Carolina team that recovered from a three-game losing streak during the middle of the season. The Pirates (9-4) beat Tulsa 27-24 on Saturday to win the Conference USA championship game. -- Chris Low