Birmingham Bowl: Legion Field, Birmingham (Jan. 3, 12:00 p.m. Eastern)
East Carolina Pirates vs. Florida Gators (-7, 57 o/u)
There’s lots of optimism in Gainesville these days regarding the Florida Gators (6-5, 4-4 SEC). Though the team had a disappointing season under head coach Will Mushchamp, “Champ” has been let go and the Gators will roll into the Birmingham Bowl with the promising Jim McElwain (formerly of Colorado State) at the helm.
McElwain will have a tough time starting his Florida tenure with a win, though, as the Gators face the high-scoring East Carolina Pirates (8-4, 5-3 American).
The Pirates stacked their early non-conference schedule with big programs, losing at then-No. 21 South Carolina (33-23) in week 2, but rebounding with a road win over then-No. 17 Virginia Tech (28-21) and a victory at home over North Carolina (70-41) in weeks 3 and 4, respectively.
At one point, the Pirates were 6-1 on the year, and were ranked as high as No. 18. However, they struggled in American conference play down the stretch, dropping games to Temple, Cincinnati, and UCF.
The Pirates are led by quarterback Shane Carden. Against Virginia Tech and North Carolina, the 6’2″ senior passed for 865 yards and scored ten touchdowns, combined. He is listed by CBS as the sixth-best QB prospect for the 2015 NFL draft.
Watch for Carden – second in the nation in passing yards with 4,309 – to hook up with his favorite receiver, Justin Hardy. The speedy wideout had 1,334 yards receiving this season to go along with nine touchdowns. The pair led ECU to 37.2 points per game, on average, 15th in the country.
Florida, meanwhile, plays a completely different style of football than ECU. The Gators have a sub-par offense which ranks near the bottom in SEC scoring, passing, and total yardage. The Gators average a respectable 30.5 points per game, but that is largely thanks to running up the score against lesser teams like Eastern Michigan (65-0) and Eastern Kentucky (52-3).
The Gators have a decent rushing attack, which averages almost 190 yards per game, but struggle through the air, posting just over 180 passing yards per game.
While the QB position was set from day one for ECU, Florida moved from 6’4″ junior Jeff Driskel to 5’11” freshman Treon Harris part way through the year. As a starter, Harris did pass for 896 yards and throw seven touchdowns to just three interceptions. (He’s also a threat to run with 291 rushing yards.) However, the diminutive pivot struggled mightily in Florida’s biggest (and most recent) game, going 13 of 32 for 169 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions against Florida State.
McElwain will be keeping a close eye on Harris in the Birmingham Bowl to assess whether he is the team’s long-term solution at quarterback.
The good news for the Gators is that their defense has been a rock. Florida ranked No. 2 in the SEC in total yardage, giving up just over 310 yards per game. Defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. was a stud for the pass-rush all year, notching 5.5 sacks and 15 hurries. Outgoing coach Will Muschamp believes the 261 lb. junior is a first-round talent.
The defense almost led the Gators to a massive upset of the Noles, in spite of Harris’ tough day. The Gators picked-off reigning Heisman Trophy-winner Jameis Winston four times, recovered one fumble, and held the prolific FSU offense to just 17 points. However, the offense could only muster 19 of its own – and one of Harris’ interceptions was returned for a touchdown – as the Gators fell, 24-19. (Though the Gators lost straight-up, the defense led them to an easy cover as 7.5-point road dogs.)
While Carden and company are likely to get their yards come game-day, the Pirates haven’t faced many defenses as good as Florida’s – especially in the latter part of the season. Considering a coach being fired normally inspires some momentum, the pick here is the Gators (-7).
(Photo credit: Mark Ramelb (Photographs taken by Mark Ramelb. Flickr source) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo has been cropped.)
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