East Carolina v. Florida
Legion Field — Birmingham, AL
January 3, 2015 — 12:00 pm Eastern (ESPN)
Why You Should Watch
It’s the last Saturday college football game until September, as the NFL wild-card round comes to dominate the gridiron calendar on the first weekend of 2015. It is the last chance for a Cinderella story this season, as a Group of Five school that went 2-1 against the ACC and SEC plays a Power Five team that went 4-5 against the same two leagues this year. One had a far bigger sample size, but that team also arrives in Birmingham without its head coach. This is the first time the bowl will be played without a title sponsor after years as the Papajohns.com Bowl and the BBVA Compass Bowl; this could be one of your last chances to see a football game at aging Legion Field, especially since UAB won’t be playing there anymore, so check out this octogenarian piece of history while you can.
What Each Team Brings to the Table
The Pirates were the early front-runners in the race for the Access Bowl bid, narrowly losing to South Carolina and knocking off Virginia Tech on the road and North Carolina in Greenville over three weekends in September to build an impressive mid-major resume. But three losses in AAC play relegated East Carolina to fourth in the conference standings, and the consolation prize after dreams of a New Year’s Six bid was a trip to Birmingham. Shane Carden was the linchpin of the nation’s third-best passing offense, with the senior quarterback finishing the year with 4300 passing yards and 28 tuochdowns. His favorite target, Justin Hardy, snagged 110 passes for 1334 yards and nine scores, and two other receivers finished with over 750 receiving yards. Breon Allen and Chris Hairston were the top backs in a running game that didn’t do much damage but at least kept defenses honest while racking up 165 yards per game. The defense kept opponents under 26 points per game, leading to an average margin of victory of 11.5 points per game.
Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin will serve as the interim coach for the Gators in Birmingham after the school fired Will Muschamp following a 6-5 regular season. (Florida only played 11 games after weather forced the cancellation of their game against Idaho.) In a weak year for the SEC East, the Gators could not finish better than .500 in conference play. The defense was never the problem for Florida, which held opponents to just over 21 points per game and finished in the top 10 nationally while allowing only 311 yards a contest. Once again the problem in Gainesville was offense. Jeff Driskel and Treon Harris split time at quarterback, neither very consistently, for a passing attack that averaged only 180 yards per game to finish 106th nationally. The ground game was slightly better, gaining 190 yards per game for the 43rd-best average in the country. They scored nearly a touchdown less than East Carolina, but if they get in the red zone they’re nearly guaranteed to score — Florida ranked 13th in the country in red zone offense, scoring on 38 of 42 opportunities.
What is Likely to Happen
Florida is at the end of a trying season that ended with the team losing its head coach. East Carolina is at the end of a season that began with tons of excitement and big dreams and faded into mediocrity by the end. They didn’t earn a New Year’s Six invitation, but the Pirates still get to play a Power Five school for one more exclamation point on a still-impressive season. Look for Carden and Hardy to connect enough times against a top-25 Gators secondary to boost their respective draft stocks, and East Carolina to score more points than Florida has conceded to any opponent since October. An undermotivated Gators squad will return to Gainesville with a .500 record for the season as East Carolina scores a win over the SEC.
East Carolina 38, Florida 21