NCF Nation: Justin Hardy

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.
East Carolina (8-4, 7-1 Conference USA) vs. Louisiana-Lafayette (8-4, 6-2 Sun Belt)

WHO TO WATCH: Quarterbacks Terrance Broadway (Louisiana-Lafayette) and Shane Carden (East Carolina). Broadway stepped in for the injured Blaine Gautier in early October and delivered five performances of 250 passing yards or more in Sun Belt play. He can be very accurate, and also boasts good mobility, having eclipsed 100 rushing yards in two of the team's final three regular-season contests. Broadway ranks 22nd nationally in pass efficiency (153.5) and 42nd in total offense (266 ypg). Carden also stepped into the starting job during the season and led his team to the postseason after passing for 2,838 yards and 21 touchdowns, and adding eight rushing touchdowns. He ranks 33rd nationally in pass efficiency (144.9).

WHAT TO WATCH: The passing offenses. Both teams can chuck it around a bit, and neither squad does much to stop the pass. East Carolina checks in at 105th nationally in pass defense (271.7 ypg), while Louisiana-Lafayette is even worse at 111th (283.9 ypg). The Pirates have an elite receiver in sophomore Justin Hardy, who ranks 18th nationally in receptions (6.92 rpg) and 28th in receiving yards (87.2 ypg). Hardy comes off a 16-catch, 171-yard performance in a shootout victory against Marshall. ULL counters with Harry Peoples, who caught 10 passes in a very competitive game against Florida, and had three games of more than 140 receiving yards.

WHY TO WATCH: If today's matchup is anything like the 2011 New Orleans Bowl, which Louisiana-Lafayette won 32-30 on a last-second field goal, everyone's in for a treat. The Ragin' Cajuns are playing in consecutive bowl games after appearing in none before 2011. They gave Florida all it could handle at The Swamp on Nov. 10 and finished the season with three straight wins. East Carolina, meanwhile, has dropped three straight bowl games since beating Boise State in the 2007 Hawaii Bowl. Both teams can put up points and both have somewhat shaky defenses, so this one could turn into an entertaining shootout. It'll be interesting to see how Carden, dynamic running back Vintavious Cooper and the Pirates handle what will feel like a road game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

PREDICTION: Louisiana-Lafayette 38, East Carolina 34. Louisiana-Lafayette had the more impressive season and will be playing in front of a partisan crowd at the dome. Broadway improved with experience as the season went along and should take another step with the added bowl prep time. Carden and Cooper will help East Carolina's offense keep pace for most of the way, but the Pirates have struggled against decent to good competition all season, and today's game is no exception. East Carolina takes the early lead, but Broadway rallies ULL with his arm in the fourth quarter for the win.

R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl keys

December, 22, 2012
Three keys for today's R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl matchup between Louisiana-Lafayette and East Carolina.

1. Broadway show: Terrance Broadway takes center stage at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome after racking up 2,526 pass yards, 661 rush yards and 24 total touchdowns for Louisiana-Lafayette this season. He makes the offense go for the Ragin' Cajuns, and if East Carolina can't slow him down, it'll be a very long afternoon for the Pirates. Broadway really emerged as a dual threat late in the season, eclipsing 120 rush yards in two of his final three games. East Carolina must contain both Broadway and sophomore running back Alonzo Harris to make Louisiana-Lafayette one-dimensional. Broadway enters the game playing his best football, having racked up 1,275 pass yards, 428 rush yards, 12 touchdowns (8 pass, 4 rush) and three interceptions in his past five games.

2. Red alert: Both offenses can put up points, and a big reason for that is their effectiveness in the red zone. Louisiana-Lafayette ranks third nationally in red zone efficiency with 49 scores (40 touchdowns) on 52 attempts. East Carolina isn't far behind, tying for fifth nationally with 45 scores (35 touchdowns) on 49 attempts. Pirates quarterback Shane Carden has led 42 red zone scores on 45 chances since moving into the starting role. The Ragin' Cajuns have scored on each of their past 25 red zone chances entering the bowl. East Carolina's defense is significantly better in the red zone (tied for 54th) than Louisiana-Lafayette's (tied for 103rd). The defense that forces field goal attempts or generates a red zone stop or two likely comes out victorious.

3. Special teams: When the teams are as evenly matched as these two, the kicking game often decides the outcome. Louisiana-Lafayette has a huge weapon in kicker Brett Baer, a Lou Groza Award semifinalist who had the game-winning 50-yard field goal in the 2011 New Orleans Bowl. Baer already has matched his 2011 kick scoring record of 100 points entering the bowl game, having connected on 17 of 20 field goal attempts. East Carolina could do some damage on returns with receiver Justin Hardy, who ranks 31st nationally in punt return average (9.67 ypr). While East Carolina struggles in kickoff and punt coverage, Louisiana-Lafayette isn't very dangerous on returns.