MEMPHIS — More often than not, non-BCS bowl games simply come down to who wants to be there the most.
Flash back to the 2006 Music City Bowl. An excited Kentucky team that hadn't been to a bowl game in seven years faced what seemed to be a disinterested Clemson team that had been a player in the BCS mix before falling apart late in the year.
The Cats jumped all over the Tigers and led 28-6 before a couple of late touchdowns made the score appear closer than the game actually was.
Players from both teams say desire will play a large role in the outcome of the game.
"I feel like whoever wants it more is going to get the win," said UK defensive end Ventrell Jenkins.
"It looks like a pretty even matchup, so I think whichever team can come out and show the most intensity is going to be the key," said ECU quarterback Patrick Pinkney.
In theory, both East Carolina and Kentucky have met pre-season expectations just by making it to the Liberty Bowl.
The Conference USA championship was at the top of ECU Coach Skip Holtz's to-do list while Rich Brooks was focused on guiding the UK program to a third straight bowl for the first time in 57 years.
Both teams got off to hot starts, fostering hopes of bigger and better things. East Carolina knocked off Virginia Tech and West Virginia in its first two games and suddenly became the early BCS-buster media darlings. Kentucky won its first four games, sparking buzz about potential trips to the Outback or Chick-fil-A bowls.
The Pirates and Wildcats would come back down to earth a little bit. ECU's BCS hopes were wiped out by an overtime loss at N.C. State on Sept. 30, and they lost their next two games after that. East Carolina did finish strong, though, winning six of its last seven games, including a win over Tulsa in the C-USA title game.
So while the BCS is a distant memory, Holtz said there's no real sense of disappointment.
"We've talked about the road to Memphis from the beginning since January," Holtz said. "We wanted to win our conference. We were so close the last two years and it eluded us, so we wanted to climb that hurdle this year. In winning the conference and improving our record against BCS schools, this football team has accomplished the goals that were set."
The Cats had more trouble down the stretch, dropping six of their final eight games. UK junior defensive end Jeremy Jarmon said the team is still stinging from some missed opportunities but hasn't let it affect their frame of the mind for the Liberty Bowl.
"We're still disappointed, but not to the point to where it's clouded our vision," he said. "We're genuinely excited to be here. You can see it on guys' faces when you're walking around the hotel and you see guys out having a good time.
Being happy to be at a bowl and being ready to play the game are two separate things, though. Brooks said that while the team has had a good week of practice, it's hard to for him to gauge where his team is mentally or how they'll perform.
"I'm not sure," he said. "I'm never sure, I know the energy at practices has been very good, and through the whole process it appears that some of the players have improved. The proof is whether they carry it to the field from practice."
The Liberty Bowl is also the difference between a winning and losing season for Kentucky.
"You'll be remembered a whole lot better at 7-6 than you would at 6-7," Jenkins said.
Like UK, ECU is making its third straight bowl appearance. The Pirates were whipped 24-7 by South Florida in the 2006 PapaJohns.com Bowl, but rebounded to beat a heavily favored Boise State 41-38 in the 2007 Hawaii Bowl. The Pirates have emerged as solid favorites in Friday's game.
"I think that first year everybody was just excited to have the opportunity to go to a bowl," Holtz said. "Against Boise State we did a great job of putting a shield on, putting a face on. We had that type of focus, because everybody thought we were going to lose. This is kind of a role reversal. We're learning how to play as champions. The circus we went through at 3-0 helped us understand no matter what anybody says we have to go out and play the football game."
Brooks noted he saw an ESPN poll that showed 81.4 percent of the country thinks East Carolina will win.
"I watch the scrolls," he said. "You can see how they would see it that way, considering how they finished and we finished and they're conference champions and we're in the lower third of the SEC. I just hope that we can play better than we did at the end of the year."
The Pirates also have a couple of additional motivational carrots: just the second 10-win season in school history and wins over ACC, Big East and SEC schools in the same season.
"It'd go a long way in helping us accomplish things from an image standpoint that we want to do," Holtz said.
Jarmon said the Cats will have to play like a team with something to prove also.
"East Carolina is a very hungry football team," Jarmon said. "They're trying to make a name for their program and top off their season, and we have to match that intensity."