Location: Legion Field – Birmingham, Alabama [Capacity: 70,459]
Weather: 63°F, scattered thunderstorms (45% chance of rain), winds SSE at 13 mph
Time: 12:00 p.m. EST
TV: ESPN (Dave Neal, Andre Ware, Laura Rutledge)
SiriusXM: 83 | Radio: Gator Radio Network [Affiliates]
Live Updates: @OnlyGators on Twitter
|FLORIDA GATORS||EAST CAROLINA PIRATES|
|(Interim) Head Coach: D.J. Durkin||Head Coach: Ruffin McNeill|
|Record: 6-5||Record: 8-4|
|Conference: Southeastern||Conference: American|
Odds: Florida -7 | O/U 56
STATS / STREAKS / NOTES
» Florida, which is bowl eligible or the first time since 2012, is 20-20 all-time in bowl games. The Gators had won four-straight before falling to Louisville in the 2013 Sugar Bowl, the last of their 22-straight bowl game appearances. UF is also making its 20th appearance in a January bowl game in the last 22 seasons (since 1993), most in the nation.
» Durkin is serving as a head coach for the first time. He is Florida’s fourth interim coach all time, following Galen Hall (1984), Gary Darnell (1989) and Charlie Strong (2004).
» The Gators have not played at Legion Field since 1993. Florida is 4-2 all-time in the city of Birmingham, last playing a bowl game in town in 1988.
» UF is also 1-0 all-time against ECU with a 24-17 victory in Gainesville in 1983.
» The Gators and Pirates will play twice in a three-game span with UF hosting ECU on Sept. 12, the second week of the 2015 regular season.
» Florida is 23-7 against unranked opponents since Will Muschamp took over in 2011.
» Five of UF’s 11 games this season have been decided by six points or fewer (2-3).
» The Gators will not be ranked at any point in a full season for the first time since 1979.
» Despite its struggles, Florida’s offense has been an efficient scorer in the red zone, converting 38-of-42 opportunities (.905). That’s good for third in the SEC and 12th nationally. The Gators, however, have only converted 24 red zone touchdowns on those 42 trips (.571).
» Nearly 43 percent of opponent drives against Florida have ended in a three-and-out (66 of 155).
» Since Muschamp took over in 2011, the Gators are 23-5 when holding an opponent to 21 or fewer points, 20-3 when rushing for 150+ yards, 26-6 when outrushing an opponent, 17-7 when scoring first and 23-4 when leading at the half. Conversely, Florida is 1-8 when rushing for fewer than 100 yards, 2-15 when being out-rushed by an opponent and 5-17 when tied or trailing at the half.
Plenty of Gators players, coaches and staffers will be involved in their last game as members of the Florida football program on Saturday, a fact not lost on redshirt senior linebacker Michael Taylor during a bowl game press conference held on Friday.
Taylor said everyone involved with the program is focused on winning the bowl game despite the fact that a new coaching staff is coming in and the Gators are undergoing a major shift this upcoming offseason.
“We want to go out on top leaving the field with a victory for our last college game. Any time, if you’re a competitor, you don’t want to lose. You’re going out there with the intent to win the game no matter when you’re playing or who you’re playing. I just believe that everybody is in it to go out and get a victory – coach, player, alumni, all our media people, all our cheerleaders, our mascot, we’re all out here to get this victory,” he said.
Leading the charge will be Durkin in his first game ever as the head coach of a college football program. Durkin has spoken at length about what the opportunity means to him, and Taylor pointed out that Durkin has the coaching staff working just as hard as it would have under Muschamp, which in turn has given Florida’s players additional motivation for Saturday.
“The coaches, their jobs were up in the air and they didn’t know if they were going to be there or not, but they didn’t stop the way they coach. They put in the same effort, the same preparation,” Taylor explained.
“I was walking by the stadium one night, I saw their cars out their late putting in the game plan, putting in the work for us. So when you got coaches who are that dedicated to you as a player, you don’t feel like you owe them, but if they’re putting it in, why can’t I put in a little extra? If we’re all in it together, it just makes it that much better to get a victory.”
Though a couple Gators will not be with the team for the game, leaving the program early either on their own accord or due to a violation of team rules (see “Injuries and Absences” below), redshirt senior center Max Garcia believes the rest of the team is completely focused on the task ahead.
“We’re not worried about the outside distractions. It’s easy to lay down. It’s easy to start thinking about what you want to do afterwards. It’s easy to cash out,” he said. “We’re still in it together. We’re still here. We’re still locking in, doing things the right way, trying to focus.”
INJURIES AND ABSENCES
» Out (9): Redshirt sophomore defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. (surgery), redshirt senior linebacker Neiron Ball (knee – season), sophomore LB Jarrad Davis (knee – season), redshirt senior tight end Jake McGee (leg – season), junior RB Mark Herndon (ACL – season), freshman defensive back J.C. Jackson (shoulder – season), freshman DT Thomas Holley (hip – season)
» Not playing (3): Redshirt senior wide receiver Andre Debose (parted ways), senior defensive tackle Darious Cummings (violation of team rules), redshirt senior defensive tackle Leon Orr (parted ways)
With Debose not with the program, Durkin said a number of Florida players will be given the opportunity to return kickoffs and punts on Saturday. Among those Gators are four sophomores – wide receivers Demarcus Robinson and Chris Thompson, running back Kelvin Taylor and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.
Durkin also noted that redshirt freshman DT Caleb Brantley will step in for Cummings as a starter, though he will be part of a large rotation at the position. “He’s made tremendous strides in how he plays and how consistently he plays,” said Durkin of Brantley. “Caleb is one of the biggest guys I’m talking about when I [talk about improvement]. He’s played well for us in big games, and we’re going to need him to play big for us [Saturday].”
NOTES AND QUOTES
» Garcia on his experience as a transfer to Florida: “My time at Florida has just been all positive. It just made me a better person, a better athlete, a better student, just all around just a better person. I can’t thank Muschamp enough for that opportunity. Just being at the University of Florida, just getting a high-class education and just being able to experience the football game with the teammates that I had and the coaches that I had has just been a great experience.”
» Durkin on what Muschamp meant to him as a coach and friend: “I’d be here quite some time if I went through everything I learned from him. You can’t find a better human being, a better man. I have the utmost respect for him. It was a great four years spent with him. I learned a ton of football; he’s one of the most intelligent football coaches I’ve ever been around. It’s been invaluable to me in my career. There’s no doubt about it that he can be and will be a head coach somewhere in the near future. He’s definitely left his mark with this coaching staff, with these players, with myself. He’s a special person and we spent a lot of quality time together. He’s got a lot of great thing ahead of him, for sure.”
» New head coach Jim McElwain joked (?) on a number of occasions over the last few weeks that he hoped to tailgate ahead of the Birmingham Bowl. Will he follow through on that plan?
WHAT’S AT STAKE
The Gators are playing for their coaches and their futures with the program. Not only does Florida want to prove that it deserves respect with a 7-5 record that would be 8-5 had the Idaho game not been canceled, the players also want to make sure McElwain is well-aware that they are talented and prepared to make an impact in 2015. The most important part of this bowl process for UF as a program was the chance it gave McElwain to evaluate the team during more than a dozen practices. But when the whistle blows on Saturday, the Gators will be looking at the present, not the future. Florida’s players and coaches will have one last chance to make a statement, wrapping up a tough four years in Gainesville.
There is nothing to lose for the Pirates in this one as ECU looks to prove it can hang with the big boys against a talented and underachieving UF team. East Carolina did take down then-No. 17 Virginia Tech earlier in the season, but based on VT’s season as a whole, a win Saturday would be ECU’s its biggest since defeating No. 18 Houston on Dec. 5, 2009. The Pirates have an explosive offense but will face a tough Gators defense with a much-improved secondary. Where ECU can make a statement is by limiting UF’s struggling offense and hanging enough points in Birmingham that it would be too tough for Florida to catch up.