EAST CAROLINA PIRATES (8-4) vs. FLORIDA GATORS (6-5)
JAN. 3, NOON ET, LEGION FIELD, BIRMINGHAM, ALA. (ESPN)
Season highlights: If only ECU had played in the ACC Coastal, the Pirates might have won the division. After a tough loss to South Carolina, ECU spent back-to-back weeks demolishing Virginia Tech and North Carolina. Shane Carden threw for 865 yards and accounted for 10 touchdowns in those wins, which vaulted ECU into the national spotlight. For much of the next month, the Pirates were considered the cream of the crop of the Group of 5.
Season lowlights: The loss to South Carolina was understandable. ECU controlled much of the game, but it slipped away late. The back-to-back losses to Temple and Cincinnati were tougher to swallow. Carden struggled against Temple, failing to throw or run for a TD for the first time since his third career start in 2012. A week later, Carden threw for 425 yards but was outdueled by Gunner Kiel in a 54-46 win by the Bearcats. When it was over, ECU’s hopes for a New Year’s Six game had evaporated. The regular season ended on a particularly sour note with a defeat to UCF on a last-second Hail Mary.
Players to watch: Carden and receiver Justin Hardy are the backbone of ECU’s offense and among the most dangerous QB-WR combos in the country. Carden finished second in the nation in passing yards (4,309), and Hardy was fifth in receiving (1,334), setting the NCAA record for career receptions in the process.
Motivation factor: From the start of the season, ECU has been hoping to win some national acclaim for its success. The Pirates have four wins over Power 5 teams in the past two years (more than any other non-Power 5 school, save BYU), but they have rarely gotten to showcase their success on a national stage. A bowl berth will certainly give them an opportunity, but more importantly, it will be a sendoff to Carden and Hardy, two of the best players to ever come through the program. ECU will surely want to say goodbye in style.
Season highlights: While Florida’s offense still wasn’t very impressive in Will Muschamp’s final year in Gainesville, the defense really evolved as the season went on. After rough showings against Kentucky and Alabama, the Gators finished the regular season ranked second in the SEC in total defense, allowing just 311 yards per game. Dante Fowler Jr. proved to be one of the nation’s best pass-rushers, registering 5.5 sacks and 15 quarterback hurries. The Gators essentially clinched a bowl berth by blowing out rival Georgia 38-20. It was the first time Florida had beaten the Bulldogs since 2010.
Season lowlights: Well, losing five games is never appropriate at Florida. The Gators got creamed at Alabama 42-21, lost in the closing seconds to an offensively inept LSU team, got blown out 42-13 -- on homecoming -- to a Missouri team that registered just 119 yards of offense, lost in overtime to a bad South Carolina team and forced four interceptions at Florida State only to lose by five. The offense ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in scoring, passing and total offense. Florida got no consistency at quarterback or receiver, and Muschamp resigned after the South Carolina game.
Player to watch: Quarterback Treon Harris has his first audition for new coach Jim McElwain. It’s likely that the quarterback spot will be up for grabs. While Harris took the starting job from Jeff Driskel during the last month of the season, he is raw and has a lot of work to do when it comes to his development. Harris finished the year with 896 passing yards and seven touchdowns with three interceptions. He is pretty dangerous on the ground, registering 291 yards and three scores.
Motivation factor: Who would have thought that getting to seven wins and having a winning record would be an accomplishment at Florida? The Gators haven’t done either since 2012. They also haven’t won a bowl game since the 2011 season. A lot of guys are trying to impress their new coach. This will be one of many tryouts for players whom McElwain will be monitoring carefully.
-- Edward Aschoff