Birmingham Bowl East Carolina vs. Florida - 5 Things to Know
Think of the Birmingham Bowl contest between East Carolina and the Florida Gators as an audition for the team’s current defensive coordinator, DJ Durken.
After a tumultuous season that saw the Gators go 6-5 on the season, fail to play the season opener because of weather, fall short to LSU, South Carolina and FSU and could not keep up with the likes of Alabama and Missouri. To say the year was like a roller coaster would be an understatement.
Now, these Gators look to the future and the Jim McElwain Era for 2015. While McElwain fills out his staff and focuses on recruiting after being hired away from Colorado State on Dec. 4, Durkin, who took over for Will Muschamp, has the unenviable task of guiding the Gators (6-5) through a 60-minute swan song after McElwain elected to hire Mississippi State's Geoff Collins to replace him as defensive coordinator.
That is a tough pill to swallow.
The East Carolina Pirates can score in bunches, which makes for an interesting matchup against the tough Gators defense led by Dante Fowler Jr., and secondary made of future NFL stars. Shane Carden was a player people talked about in the same breath as the Heisman Trophy contenders at one point, but time and opportunity caught up to the team that once put up 70 points on North Carolina this season.
East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill was in a similar situation as a lame-duck boss in 2009 at Texas Tech while filling in for Mike Leach.
"That's one of the hardest positions to be in, and I was in that position at Texas Tech at the Alamo Bowl," McNeill said.
Just as unenviable might be facing East Carolina's offense. The Pirates (8-4) ranked fifth in the FBS with 532.8 yards per game and tied for 14th with an average of 37.2 points. Their passing game was second with 367.3 yards per game.
And they didn't simply pile up numbers in the American Athletic Conference.
In three consecutive matchups with Power 5 conference programs South Carolina, Virginia Tech and North Carolina from Sept. 6-20, East Carolina averaged 581.3 yards and 40.3 points. It lost 33-23 at then-No. 21 South Carolina before a 28-21 win at then-No. 17 Virginia Tech and a 70-41 home blowout of North Carolina.
Florida suffered a 23-20 overtime home loss to South Carolina on Nov. 15 for the teams' only common opponent.
Here are five things to know about this bowl game.
ABOUT THE PIRATES
Pirates have long been associated with the North Carolina coast. One of the most famous pirates, Blackbeard, resided in the North Carolina coastal communities of Bath, Beaufort and Ocracoke. The modern day mascot is based on the description of Blackbeard. Many other pirates used the shallow coast and Outer Banks to evade capture. ECU officially became the Pirates in 1934. In 1983, a contest was developed to name the Pirates.
Children from all over Pitt County submitted their ideas, and Pee Dee the Pirate was chosen. The Pee Dee River is a river along the North Carolina and South Carolina border where pirates often set up camp.
THE PIRATES HAVE WEAPONS
East Carolina's Shane Carden had the second-most passing yards in the nation with 4,309 while throwing 28 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Justin Hardy, a third-team All-American, has been the main offensive weapon with 110 catches for 1,334 yards and nine TDs, and he will face a tough matchup with Florida cornerback and second-team All-American Vernon Hargreaves III.
Offensively, the Gators failed to crack 300 yards in five games. They ranked 11th in the SEC in total offense (370.2), and their 12th-ranked passing attack (180.7) never built any momentum in league play.
Outside of the SEC, however, Florida managed 542.5 yards of offense in blowout wins over Eastern Michigan and Eastern Kentucky, its two nonconference games aside from a 24-19 season-ending loss to then-No. 1 Florida State.
A SOLID RUNNING GAME
The Gators offense will only go as far as the running game will take them. That means both Mack Brown and Kelvin Taylor will be vital to a Gators win.
Florida is averaging 189.5 rushing yards per game. Although that is nowhere near being the best in the sport, the Gators' running game has to go wild if they have any chance of winning this one. After all, it's not like Florida is a good passing team, or even close to being one.
GATORS WIN A SHOOTOUT
Call me a homer on this one, but the Gators will be loose, having nothing to lose and everything to gain. This is an audition for Durken to land another coordinator job. Look for the defense to play tight and the running game to flourish.
I also see this as a chance for Treon Harris to gain a leg up in the quarterback competition for next season.
FLORIDA 43 EAST CAROLINA 41