Florida is back in a bowl game, but a matchup against East Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl on Saturday (noon ET, ESPN) is not the game Gators fans were hoping for at the beginning of the season. No offense to the Pirates and the city of Birmingham, but Florida had higher aspirations for 2014. It’s why head coach Will Muschamp was let go at the end of the regular season.
But now it’s 2015, a year of hope for the Gators. A win over East Carolina could be just the momentum boost this team needs as it begins a new regime. Here are five things to watch heading into Saturday’s game:
New coach on hand: Florida has already tabbed Jim McElwain as Muschamp’s successor, but the former Colorado State head coach won’t be able to coach during the bowl game. Instead, he’ll be relegated to a box in the stadium where he’ll watch and evaluate his new roster, making it an audition of sorts for the returning players. They will be looking to make a good first impression on their new coach and get a leg up heading into spring practice. McElwain has interfered very little with interim coach D.J. Durkin during the bowl preparation, but he’ll be paying close attention during Saturday’s game.
Swan song: Let’s not forget that East Carolina is playing in this game, too, and the Pirates have Shane Carden, one of the best quarterbacks in college football. It will be Carden's final game with the Pirates, and he’ll be looking to finish his career on a high note. The senior is No. 2 nationally with 4,309 passing yards this season. He’s averaging 359 yards per game and has thrown 28 touchdowns to just eight interceptions. He also has a chance to climb up the all-time ranks. If he can go over 300 yards Saturday, he’ll finish among the top 30 in career passing yards, passing the likes of Russell Wilson, Drew Brees and Carson Palmer.
Hargreaves vs. Hardy: Remember all the hype when Vernon Hargreaves III went up against Amari Cooper, the eventual Biletnikoff Award winner? Well, the Florida sophomore will have his hands full again in the bowl game with Justin Hardy. The East Carolina wide receiver is second to Cooper with 110 receptions on the season, and he played in two fewer games. Hardy leads the nation in first-down receptions and receptions in the red zone. With that said, he hasn’t faced a cornerback quite like Hargreaves, who led the SEC in passes broken up. Both players will be playing on Sundays before they’re done.
Wet conditions: If Florida’s defense can’t stop Carden and the Pirates’ prolific passing attack, the weather might. It’s expected to rain nearly two inches in Birmingham this weekend, and there’s a chance for thunderstorms in the area on Saturday. That’s nothing new for the Gators, who had their season opener canceled due to weather. But how will East Carolina respond? If it does get wet and sloppy, protecting the football will be at a premium.
Special teams disparity: The rain also might have an effect on special teams, which already is an area of concern for East Carolina. The Pirates rank 119th nationally in special teams efficiency, worst among all bowl teams. Florida comes in at No. 21 but will be without its top return man, Andre Debose, who opted to stay home rather than make the trip with his teammates. The sixth-year senior returned four kickoffs and one punt for touchdowns during his Florida career.