East Carolina Pirates (8-4 SU, 5-7 ATS) vs. Florida Gators (6-5 SU, 6-5 ATS)
Date and Time: Saturday, January 3, 2015, 1:00 pm EST
Where:Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala..
TV: ESPN2, DirecTV 209
by Badger, Football Handicapper, Predictem.com
Point Spread: E.Car. +6.5/FLA. -6.5
Over/Under Total: 56.5
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If you are an advocate that only successful, high achieving teams should get January bowl game invitations, you might want to look away on January 3rd when the East Carolina Pirates and the Florida Gators tangle in the Birmingham Bowl played at Legion Field in Birmingham on ESPN2.
That because the Pirates and Gators are two of the more frustrating, underachieving teams in all of college football this season.
At 8-4, some fans of East Carolina may have an argument with me calling them an underachiever in 2014, but when you consider the fact that the Pirates were sitting with a 6-1 record in late October with five games remaining, only to go 2-3 down that crucial stretch thats a bit disappointing if you ask me. All of the loses were really close ones, including crushing one on the road at Temple (20-10) and at Cincinnati (54-46) in early November is what eventually cost the Pirates a shot at a potential American Athletic Conference crown that eventually ended in a three-way tie (Memphis, Central Florida and Cincinnati all ended 7-1 in the AAC).
That brings us to the bigger disappointment of the two teams in Birmingham on Saturday, the Gators. Theres no need to really rehash how bad and utterly inconsistent Florida was this season, because its been covered and the fact remains that the disappointing results cost head coach Will Muschamp his gig. Florida did seem to play a little more inspired football in their final three games of the season, but moral victories and close losses to rivals South Carolina and Florida State just dont cut it, and shouldnt cut it when youre talking about a team with so much talent on the roster.
Another dynamic to consider before fully handicapping this game is the whole interim coach dilemma. Florida defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin has been preparing the Gators for the bowl game and will serve as the interim head coach in the bowl, but hes already out the door as well, as new Florida head coach Jim McElwain has already hired Mississippi States Geoff Collins to be the new D.C. All of the moves make you wonder if Durkin has been more concerned about polishing his resume and his next job, rather than trying to impress the powers that be in preporation for a meaningless bowl game with a team that has underachieved in record proportions. And dont forget that East Carolina head coach Ruffin McNeill has been down this road before, as it was McNeill who served as interim coach at Texas Tech after Mike Leach was fired in the 2010 Alamo Bowl leading the Red Raiders to a 41-31 win over Michigan State (although to be fair, 14 Spartans players were suspended for the bowl).
Either the oddsmakers are still expecting the talented Gators to finally step up, or because of the public perception of Florida being an SEC school and a top-flight program, but either way they set the opening point spread for this game with Florida as 7.5-point favorites on a neutral site. That number has come down a little since it opened, despite more of the handle coming in on the Gators, but most sportsbooks have dropped the line to Florida minus -6.5 with a few sprinklings of full touchdown minus -7s mixed in here and there.
The over/under total opened at 57 and has held firm at most sportsbooks, although several of the larger offshore sportsbooks has dropped the hook to list the current total at 56.5 with even a few straight up 56s on the board at a few.
On the field, this game should feature the classic offense-versus-defense matchup that we so often get in college football bowl games. East Carolina and senior quarterback Shane Carden bring the countrys 2nd-ranked passing offense into the bowl game, while the Gators supply the defense bring their 9th-ranked unit into the game to try and stop Carden and the Pirates. Carden averages 359 yards passing a game and has thrown for 4,300 yards and 28 touchdowns on the season, topping the 400 yard mark in five games this season. His top target is receiver Justin Hardy, who brings 27 career TD catches into the game (10 this year) and an average of 9 catches a game. But something will have to give because the Gators only allow 194 yards in the air a game (24th in FBS) and it doesnt take a rocket scientist to understand that the Gators will need to stop the Pirates passing attack to stay alive in this game.
Part of the reason Florida will need to limit the damage by Carden and Hardy is because their own offense has been at the heart of their struggles and disappointments in 2014. Junior QB Jeff Driskel just never seemed to live up to his recruiting ranking, and at midseason the Gator inserted freshman Treon Harris in the role to try and sprak the unit to higher production. Harris has done a decent job (896 yards, 7TD, 3 INT), but as a freshman hes more prone to pull it down and run than to beat teams with his arm. The running back duo of Matt Jones (817 yards, 6 TD) and Kelvin Taylor (565, 6) would likely get more carries to take some of the pressure off of the freshman QB, but considering the Pirates defense ended the season ranked 8th against the run (allow 114 ypg), that theory may not exactly produce the kind of results the Gators need.
East Carolina has done a good job for sports bettors in the past against SEC foes, going 5-2 ATS (and 5-0 ATS in non-conference games. But the biggest betting trend in my mind when it comes to East Carolina is the old what have you done for me lately philosophy, and considering the Pirates are 1-7 ATS in the last eight games overall this season sticks out like a giant sore thumb.
Florida is also 4-1 ATS in their last five bowl game appearances and a solid 10-4 ATS in their last 14 neutral site games. But its the over that should be considered if you are a betting trend bettor, especially since the over is 9-3 for East Carolina in neutral site games over the years and the over is also 6-2 in Floridas last eight bowl games and 7-2 in games played in January.
Badgers Pick to Cover the Point Spread: Im not a fan of betting in football games with interim coaches. Trying to gauge the motivation of 18-, 19- and 20-year olds playing college football is enough, yet alone trying to do it will the new coach watching on the sideline already and the current staff with one foot out the door is just too hard in my opinion. I do lean toward the Gators, simply because the number has come down to under a touchdown, I dont think the Pirates can match them position-for-position talent wise and I dont think Carden and the Pirates passing game is going to have as easy a time throwing it on Florida as they did in the American Athletic Conference this year. But judging the Florida has played all year, maybe Im totally misreading them like everyone else has all season long. Id lean toward Florida minus the points here, but Im saying play it at your own risk.