Bowl season has a funny way of changing uninteresting September matchups into must-see TV.
That Western Michigan-Air Force game in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl might not have been on anyone’s radar on the second Saturday in September, but by virtue of being a bowl, the game deserves at least a bit of attention.
The Birmingham Bowl might be the opposite.
In September, East Carolina-Florida would be a compelling early season matchup — the offensive-minded American Athletic Conference upstart facing a defensively stout, yet vulnerable, SEC team.
As a bowl game in the no-man’s land between New Year’s Day and the championship game, though, it’s decidedly lower tier, and both teams share some of the blame.
Florida is between two coaching regimes. While interim coach D.J. Durkin leads Florida into the bowl, new coach Jim McElwain is filling his staff and looking to 2015. Two Gators have already declared for the NFL Draft.
Like Florida, East Carolina had an uneven season. The Pirates seemed destined for a major bowl spot back in September when they picked up two wins against ACC teams. Those dreams faded with back-to-back losses against Temple and Cincinnati on the road to start November. The Pirates added a 32-30 loss to UCF on a Hail Mary to wrap up the regular season.
If both teams play to their potential, though, this could be a compelling game. East Carolina has a reputation as a giant-killer against ACC teams, but the Pirates can’t say the same against the SEC. The game will pair ECU’s Air Raid against a solid Florida pass defense, highlighted by the matchup between receiver Justin Hardy and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.
Florida should be out to set the tone for 2015 behind sophomore quarterback Treon Harris, who led the Gators’ late-season spurt.
East Carolina vs. Florida
Kickoff: Jan. 3, Noon ET
Spread: Florida by 7
East Carolina’s Key to Victory: Solve the Florida secondary
The bread-and-butter to the Pirates’ offense is easy to figure out: East Carolina comes from the Mike Leach/Air Raid school of offense. Using that approach, East Carolina defeated Virginia Tech (427 passing yards, three touchdowns) and North Carolina (446 yards, four touchdowns, one interceptions) in September. Consistency, though, was lacking. Quarterback Shane Carden still finished third in the nation in passing yards per game and in the top 30 in efficiency. Wide receiver Justin Hardy will finish his career with more receptions than anyone in college football history. ECU, though, will need to return to its early season form against a stout Florida secondary led by sophomore corner Vernon Hargreaves III. The Gators are one game removed from intercepting Jameis Winston four times and finishing fourth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense.
Florida’s Key to Victory: Keep the eye on the prize
The Gators will have all the excuses to snooze through the game in Birmingham. Florida will be playing under an interim coach while it waits for Jim McElwain to take over. Running back Matt Jones and defensive end Dante Fowler already have announced intentions to go to the NFL Draft. And the Gators will be facing their first non-power conference program in a bowl since facing Miami (Ohio) in the 1973 Tangerine Bowl. Florida should have a substantial talent edge — particularly on defense — but we’ve seen the script in a bowl game before. The last time Florida played in a bowl with an interim coach was 10 years ago after Ron Zook was fired. Charlie Strong led an uninterested team to the Peach Bowl where the Gators lost 27-10 to Miami.
East Carolina has earned a reputation as a spoiler the last two seasons, going 4-1 against ACC programs. The Pirates, though, haven’t defeated an SEC opponent since South Carolina in 1999, going 0-5 in that span. Florida would be ripe for the picking in the Birmingham Bowl. That said, East Carolina tailed off at the end of the season, losing three games in AAC play once it became the clubhouse leader for a major bowl appearance. For all of it struggles, Florida hit a stride on offense late in the season once the Gators changed quarterbacks from junior Jeff Driskel to freshman Treon Harris. Which edition of these two streaky teams shows up in Alabama will determine the course of the game.
Prediction: East Carolina 28, Florida 21