NCF Nation: Shane Carden

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- With new coach Jim McElwain in attendance, Florida jumped out to an early lead and hung on against East Carolina, winning the Birmingham Bowl 28-20.

The offense looked good at times, before quarterback Treon Harris got hurt, but it was the Florida defense that deserves the credit. The Gators made stop after stop in the fourth quarter and kept East Carolina out of the end zone when it mattered the most.

The win gave the SEC a winning bowl record (7-5) and helped the SEC East finish a perfect 5-0 this postseason.

Game ball goes to: Dante Fowler Jr. already declared early for the NFL, but that didn’t stop him from going all out in his final game at Florida. The junior defensive end, projected as a first-round pick, finished with three sacks, two quarterback hurries and deflected a pass late in the game with East Carolina threatening.

How the game was won: The bend-but-don’t-break philosophy worked for Florida’s defense in the second half, and the Gators sealed it with an interception by Vernon Hargreaves III in the final minutes. It was the third turnover forced by the defense. East Carolina entered Florida territory on 12 of its 16 drives and came away with only 20 points.

Stat of the game: East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden was as good as advertised in the loss. The senior finished 34-of-66 for 427 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. The 427 passing yards give him 11,991 for his career and moved him up to No. 26 on the all-time list, passing names such as Russell Wilson, Drew Brees and Carson Palmer.

Best play: After East Carolina grabbed the momentum to begin the second half, Florida needed a big play. The Gators called on wide receiver Ahmad Fulwood, and he delivered. The 6-foot-4 sophomore caught a quick screen and sprinted past the entire ECU defense on his way to an 86-yard touchdown. It was the longest touchdown at Florida since Muschamp arrived in 2011.

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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.

What we learned in the ACC: Week 4

September, 21, 2014
9/21/14
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Well, that was a bad Saturday for the ACC. Bad losses, high-profile suspensions, a Group of 5 team hanging 70 on a supposed Coastal contender. Yeah, it might be another long year in the ACC, but the rough day did offer a few lessons.

[+] EnlargeTallahassee, FL - September 20, 2014 - Doak Campbell Stadium: Sean Maguire (10) of the Florida State University Seminoles during a regular season game (Photo by Scott Clarke / ESPN Images)
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesFlorida State QB Sean Maguire had a gutty performance, but the Seminoles' offense missed Jameis Winston on Saturday.
 Clemson found its QB, and the Seminoles didn’t need theirs. Two things should be mentioned here that weren’t necessarily reflected in the final score of Florida State's win over Clemson. First, if Jameis Winston had played, there’s a good chance all the late drama wouldn’t have been necessary. While Sean Maguire certainly showed guts to stay in there and atone for some mistakes, FSU’s struggles on offense also showed just how much Winston brings to the table. At the same time, while the Seminoles survived, Clemson outplayed them at virtually every turn, but coming up empty in three trips to the red zone makes it tough to win. But the good news for both teams is that they’ll have much better QB situations moving forward. Winston will return, and FSU’s title hopes remain. Clemson’s season won’t end with a playoff berth, but Deshaun Watson’s emergence means there’s still a lot for Tigers fans to be excited about.

The ACC didn’t have bragging rights for long. Remember when the Big Ten was a laughingstock and the ACC was comfortably in the No. 4 spot in the conference power rankings? Well, that didn’t last long. The ACC went 0-3 against the upstart Big Ten on Saturday, including home losses by Pitt (to Iowa) and Syracuse (to Maryland). The Pitt loss is particularly galling, as the Panthers were on the brink of hitting the Top 25 and might have established themselves as a Coastal favorite with a win. Now? It’s tough to see a team that’s going to gain any national respect in this conference beyond FSU.

North Carolina isn’t a contender. The Tar Heels rolled over for ECU a year ago in an ugly loss. They saw the Pirates upset Virginia Tech last week. They had an extra week to prepare for Shane Carden and Co. before Saturday’s showdown. The result? A brutal 70-41 loss that offered a long, long list of embarrassments. The 789 yards of offense by ECU is the most against an ACC team in at least a decade, and the most any team has racked up so far this season. The 70 points is the most scored against an ACC team since Clemson’s Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia in 2012. Carden’s 438 passing yards were the second most against UNC in the last decade. After three games, UNC hasn’t looked ready to stop anyone on defense, which certainly doesn’t bode well for the ACC slate to come. Up next? Clemson.

Jacoby Brissett took care of the little guys. No one will mistake NC State’s early-season schedule for a murderer’s row of talent, so it’s way too early to buy in on the Wolfpack’s ACC chances. But the bottom line is that they’re 4-0, need just two more wins to become bowl eligible, and a year after enduring chaos at the quarterback position, Brissett has appeared to have all the answers. Through four games, he’s completing 70 percent of his throws and has tossed 10 touchdowns with just one pick -- and that came early in the opener. He’s now thrown 108 straight passes without an interception. Of course, the task gets tougher in Week 5, when Florida State comes to town.

We were high on the wrong Tech. OK, it was tough to hype Georgia Tech too much. The Yellow Jackets have trailed in each of their four games thus far, and even against Virginia Tech on Saturday, they were outgained (424 to 375), had fewer first downs (24 to 19) and converted just 4-of-12 third downs. But the Georgia Tech D made plays when it had to, and the offense cashed in with 17 points off turnovers. So maybe instead of nitpicking the Jackets’ flaws thus far, we should’ve been noting how well they’d overcome them. Justin Thomas has Georgia Tech at 4-0, and with home dates against Miami and Duke, there’s a perfect opportunity for the Jackets to take command of the Coastal.

QBs of the future took a step forward. OK, so Miami lost, Clemson lost and Wake Forest barely escaped Army. That’s not ideal, but fans have to at least be excited about how the freshman QBs performed. We already mentioned Watson, who has immense talent, and Miami's Brad Kaaya looked markedly better than he did in his Week 1 performance against Louisville, and John Wolford continues to improve in spite of very little help from the rest of the Deacons’ offense. Overall, the three true freshmen combined to complete 69 percent of their throws, averaged 8.2 yards per attempt, tossed five touchdowns and ran for a sixth while largely limiting any killer mistakes. On a brutal weekend in the ACC, the kids at least offered a reasonable silver lining.

ACC viewer's guide: Week 4

September, 20, 2014
9/20/14
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The best day of the week is finally here. Is the best league game of the year here as well? Probably. Here's a primer on all of the action throughout the day. Be sure to follow along on Twitter with all of the hashtags below.

Noon

Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech, ESPN, #GTvsVT: The Yellow Jackets have gotten to 3-0 in the most wayward of fashions. The Hokies are coming off a home loss to East Carolina, one week after upsetting a top-10 Ohio State team on the road. Could their trouble be on defense? Brandon Facyson has been playing hurt all season, sure, but Virginia Tech has surrendered 22 plays of 20 yards or more this season, fourth-most in the nation and half its total from last season (44). The big-play threat might not exactly be there with Georgia Tech, but as Jared Shanker noted this week, the visitors do bring with them a knack for converting third downs. Virginia Tech has won the past four games in this matchup.

Iowa at Pittsburgh, ESPNU, #IOWAvsPITT: Third-year Panthers coach Paul Chryst hosts a familiar foe this weekend, as he faced the Hawkeyes six times while he was offensive coordinator at Wisconsin, going 3-3. Pitt is looking for its first 4-0 start since 2000, and it will likely turn to the nation's leading rusher, James Conner, to try to get there, despite Iowa's stingy run defense (No. 7 nationally). Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, by the way, will experience a homecoming of sorts, as he went to Upper St. Clair High in Pittsburgh.

12:30 p.m.

Maryland at Syracuse, 12:30, ESPN3, #MDvsCUSE: The Terrapins are in their first year away from the "basketball" conference that is the ACC, as coach Randy Edsall said this summer, and the Big Ten newcomers will look to avenge last year's 20-3 home loss to the Orange, which came without receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. Syracuse, meanwhile, looked like a new team in last week's 40-3 win at Central Michigan, as it came off a bye and had quarterback Terrel Hunt back running the show on offense. Syracuse is looking to get to 3-0 for the first time since 1991, which would provide a big boost to a team that will embark on a difficult three-week stretch against Notre Dame, Louisville and Florida State.

Tulane at Duke, ESPN3, #TULNvsDUKE: Has there been a more overlooked team than Duke recently? All the Blue Devils have done is take care of business, coming off a 10-win, division-title season and starting 3-0 this season in methodical fashion (albeit against bad competition). In any event, the unranked Blue Devils close their nonconference slate against American Athletic Conference newcomer Tulane, which is no stranger to the ACC this season, having lost to Georgia Tech two weeks ago. Here's one interesting stat surrounding Duke quarterback Anthony Boone, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information: The Blue Devils have lost yardage on just three percent of Boone's snaps, the lowest percentage of any Power Five quarterback with at least 150 plays.

[+] EnlargeTyler Murphy
Winslow Townson/Getty ImagesTyler Murphy and Boston College hope to avoid a letdown after their upset of USC when they face FCS Maine on Saturday.
1 p.m.

Maine at Boston College, ESPN3, #MEvsBC: It's all about avoiding a letdown this week in Chestnut Hill, where the Eagles produced one of the young season's greatest upsets last weekend against USC. The Black Bears should hardly pose a huge challenge to BC, which, with Tyler Murphy under center, has been able to stretch the field much more than last season, even if the run game is still its bread and butter. Murphy leads all quarterbacks in rushing yards this season with 401, 40 more yards than he has tallied passing the ball (361).

3:30 p.m.

Louisville at FIU, Fox Sports 1: The Cardinals are looking to rebound from their first defeat of the second Bobby Petrino era, while the Golden Panthers welcome their second straight ACC foe to Miami. FIU gave Pitt a handful last week before the Panthers pulled away, but Louisville will probably not be so kind coming off the loss at Virginia. Louisville beat FIU 72-0 a year ago, and while there are plenty of new faces, quarterback Will Gardner will try to bounce back after getting pulled a week ago. His offensive line will look to get its act together as well.

Virginia at No. 21 BYU, ESPN, #UVAvsBYU: Speaking of the Cavaliers, they should serve as one of the toughest tests the Cougars face all season, as the home team has the best chance of anyone in the nation at running the regular-season table (21.7 percent, per ESPN's FPI). We'll see just how good this Virginia defense really is after strong showings through the first three weeks, as BYU quarterback Taysom Hill and his home field will be a handful to handle. Virginia beat BYU last year in the season opener, one of just two games it won all season.

Army at Wake Forest, ESPN3, #ARMYvsWAKE: The Demon Deacons' defense has actually been pretty good through three games despite a 1-2 record. And while the offense showed signs of life late in last week's loss at Utah State, it cannot afford to give away points, and it would help to develop some form of a ground game. The Black Knights were shut out last week at Stanford. They also boast, at this point, the nation's slowest offense at 31.1 seconds per play, according to data from ESPN Stats & Info.

North Carolina at East Carolina, ESPNU, #UNCvsECU: The Pirates came awfully close to beating a South Carolina team that is probably better than we initially gave it credit for, and they went into Blacksburg, Virginia, last week and took down the Hokies. Now they get the Tar Heels in a rematch of last year's 55-31 ECU rout in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels have looked underwhelming through two games, and they will be without starting guard Landon Turner. But their offense is still capable of putting plenty of points on the board, and this is a team that certainly has not forgotten about the way it was embarrassed by the Pirates last season. A shootout between Marquise Williams and Shane Carden could be on the horizon. And given UNC's upcoming slate -- at Clemson, Virginia Tech, at Notre Dame -- it better hope it can keep up this time around before league play starts. One thing to keep in mind: With Brian Walker's 100-yard interception return for a touchdown two weeks ago at San Diego State, UNC now has 10 non-offensive touchdowns since last season, according to ESPN Stats & Info. That is tied with North Texas for the second-best mark in the nation during that span, trailing only Florida State's 11.

6 p.m.

Presbyterian at NC State, ESPN3, #PREvsNCSU: The Wolfpack's laughable nonconference slate concludes, and a win here would make them 4-0 after a disappointing 3-9 mark last season. Still, it should do wonders for a young team looking to go bowling in Dave Doeren's second year at the helm, especially if it can replicate its dominant performance from last week at USF. Like its rival in Chapel Hill, NC State needs to do itself a favor, with back-to-back games against FSU and Clemson awaiting in the next two weeks to open conference play. As David Hale notes, quarterback Jacoby Brissett has been invaluable so far for the Pack, leading the ACC in touchdowns and yards and second only to Georgia Tech's Justin Thomas in passer rating.

8 p.m.

Miami at No. 24 Nebraska, ESPN2, #MIAvsNEB: Andrea Adelson and Mitch Sherman did a wonderful job recapping some of the great matchups between these old rivals. What might be the difference at Memorial Stadium, however, is the ground game. Duke Johnson has rushed for at least 90 yards in each of his past five games dating back to last season, while Ameer Abdullah has eclipsed the 100-yard mark in 12 of his past 14 games and has tallied more than 100 yards from scrimmage in 16 straight games, the longest active streak in the nation. The ACC is 6-3 against the Cornhuskers in the past nine meetings, though the Hurricanes are just 1-6 in their past seven games against AP-ranked teams, with an average point margin of minus-22.4.

8 p.m.

No. 22 Clemson at No. 1 Florida State, ABC, #CLEMvsFSU: Here's the matchup we've all been waiting for, but it won't include Jameis Winston. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner will sit out the entire game, the school announced late Friday, after reportedly making profane remarks in public. It will be Sean Maguire's turn to run the show. Maguire has not started a game since Nov. 12, 2011, his senior year at Seton Hall Prep (New Jersey). Coach Jimbo Fisher is 3-1 against Clemson since arriving in Tallahassee, but the lower-ranked team has won two of the past three meetings. The Tigers, meanwhile, are 0-4 all time against AP No. 1 teams, with the last such game coming in the 1999 "Bowden Bowl I" against FSU, a 17-14 Seminoles win. Coming into this contest, ESPN's FPI ranks Clemson 19th, FSU 2nd, and it gives the Seminoles a 77 percent chance to win.

ECU looks to do it again vs. ACC

September, 16, 2014
9/16/14
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Ruffin McNeill has not approached East Carolina's rugged three-game nonconference stretch here as proving grounds. The fifth-year Pirates coach has always believed his teams belong with whoever they're playing, Power 5 program or not. They entered South Carolina two weeks ago intending to leave with a win, the same way they entered this past weekend at Virginia Tech, the same way they will approach a home tilt with North Carolina this Saturday.

"We did not go down thinking 'upset,'" McNeill told ESPN.com, referring to the loss to the Gamecocks. "We went down expecting to win, and that's saying it as humble as I can. And that's how much I believe in our staff and our team."

[+] EnlargeShane Carden
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsThrough three games this season, East Carolina senior QB Shane Carden has already thrown for 1,031 yards and seven touchdowns.
Such a mentality hardly hindered ECU last season during its 100-plus mile trip to Chapel Hill, as the Pirates had their way with the Tar Heels in a 55-31 rout. It helped earn them more notoriety nationally three days ago in Blacksburg, Virginia, as they jumped on the Hokies early and scored late for a 28-21 win.

This week? ECU is actually favored over in-state neighbor UNC, the first-year American Athletic Conference program looking to make it back-to-back wins against the Heels before it embarks on league play.

"Oh it's been brought up since we lost to them," UNC safety Tim Scott said. "For 365. Every day our coaches remind us if we don't come ready to play, they already showed us the results when we don't come to play and this year we're trying to make sure that doesn't happen again."

To do that, UNC needs to do what it couldn't do last season, and what few have been able to do since, including NC State late in 2013: Stop Shane Carden.

Carden accounted for six total touchdowns last season against the Heels, throwing for 376 yards. Saturday at Virginia Tech, he was responsible for all four ECU touchdowns and threw for 427 yards. The Houston native's rise has mirrored that of his staff's, each in their fifth years in Greenville.

With McNeill getting hired at ECU roughly two weeks before signing day, Carden appeared to be Stephen F. Austin-bound. Former Texas Tech quarterback B.J. Symons, who had played for the Red Raiders while McNeill was an assistant there, called McNeill about Carden, whose dad was Symons' wife's boss. Carden visited ECU, was intrigued by the idea of running an offense designed by Mike Leach proteges and signed with the Pirates a week later.

"He's always been pretty strong on the mental toughness, the leadership, being one of the guys, the guy that they can rally behind," offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Lincoln Riley told ESPN.com. "Some of that can be taught, but some of that is natural, God-given ability. Sometimes people just follow people and you can't really nail down exactly why. Some people just have that presence about them, and Shane has that."

Carden's first career pass was picked off, at South Carolina in 2012. But he found his footing late that year, leading the Pirates to five wins in their final six regular-season games, during which they scored 42 points per game. Last season, Carden finished in the top-10 nationally of virtually every passing category, leading ECU to a 10-3 mark while making a leap that McNeill described as going from the quarterback of the offense to the quarterback of the team.

"He works every day like he's losing his job, and he works on his craft," said McNeill, who played defensive back at ECU from 1976-80. "The kids call him cap'n: C-A-P-apostrophe-N."

The 31-year-old Riley, meanwhile, has become one of the hottest names on the assistant coaching circuit, based largely off his work with Carden and before that with Michael Crabtree, whom he mentored when coaching receivers at Texas Tech.

Everything seems to be falling into place right now for ECU, which has one of its favorite sons ushering it into this new era in a new league.

"I'm beginning to see it come into fruition, because one thing with Coach (Steve) Spurrier and Coach (Frank) Beamer: They don't just win for a season, they win for seasons, and I would like to get our program where it's understood that we are going to be successful for seasons, not a season," McNeill said. "And the belief and commitment to the team and belief and commitment to our mission and vision -- it's very important that that is continued."

Another win Saturday over a bigger program from down the road would only further that progress, as it would make ECU 4-1 against the ACC in the past two years and serve notice to the rest of its new league brethren.

"You always hear about teams that went undefeated or only lost one game and everybody says, 'Who'd they play?' And they don't have anything to show for it," Carden said. "Well, ECU always has a chance to play these good teams and give us a chance to put our name in the mix with some big-name schools if we go out and win those games."

SEC viewer's guide: Week 2

September, 6, 2014
9/06/14
8:00
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Noon ET

Florida Atlantic at No. 2 Alabama, SEC Network
This one could get ugly, as the Crimson Tide defense -- the secondary, in particular -- looks to bounce back and earn some trust from coach Nick Saban after last week's too-close-for-comfort 33-23 win over West Virginia. The Owls, who lost 55-7 in their season opener at Nebraska last week, should be just what Alabama needs in its home opener. All eyes will be on Bama's quarterbacks after Saban said he would "probably" play ballyhooed backup Jake Coker along with Blake Sims, the starter. Sims was solid as a game-manager type in Week 1, but if he slips at all, Coker could make a bid for the starting job.

No. 24 Missouri at Toledo, ESPN
Gary Pinkel was the coach at Toledo from 1991 to 2000 before taking the same position at Missouri, so he's doing his old school a solid by playing on the road this week. Toledo played at Mizzou last season and lost a competitive game 38-23, but this version of the Rockets is improved. Quarterback Phillip Ely, an Alabama transfer, threw for 337 yards and four touchdowns in the Rockets' season-opening 54-20 win against New Hampshire. The Tigers are just a five-point favorite in this game, according to Bovada. Missouri QB Maty Mauk and Co. will look to continue their big-play ways, but Toledo is one of just two teams that hasn't allowed a touchdown of 40 yards or more since the start of the 2013 season.

Arkansas State at Tennessee, SEC Network
The Vols opened some eyes with a convincing 38-7 victory in their opener against Utah State. Particularly impressive was their defense, which held Utah State and dangerous dual-threat quarterback Chuckie Keeton to 244 yards of total offense. The Volunteers will need a repeat performance against an Arkansas State offense that should not be overlooked. The Red Wolves have been to bowl games in each of their past three seasons and added the formidable offensive mind of coach Blake Anderson, formerly the offensive coordinator at North Carolina.

2 p.m. ET

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Rogelio V. Solis/Associated PressDak Prescott and Mississippi State were clicking in last week's rout of Southern Miss.
UAB at Mississippi State, ESPN3.com
MSU had a terrific opening week. We knew the defense was one of the best in the SEC, but quarterback Dak Prescott and the Bulldogs' offense showed a lot of bite in a 49-0 rout of Southern Miss. Prescott threw for a career-high 284 yards, and two of his four passing touchdowns went to electric athlete De'Runnya Wilson. Mississippi State faces another Conference USA foe this week in the Blazers, who could provide more of a test for MSU's run defense. UAB rushed for 338 yards in a 48-10 Week 1 win against Troy, including Jordan Howard's standout effort (179 yards and two TDs).

3:30 p.m. ET

Ohio at Kentucky, ESPNU
The Wildcats kicked the basketball offseason to the back burner last week when their fast-breaking offense captured everyone's attention in a 59-14 feel-good win against Tennessee-Martin. The 59 points were especially crowd-pleasing after Kentucky averaged just 20.5 last season. Sure, Tennessee-Martin offered little resistance, but UK quarterback Patrick Towles showed a command of the offense in his first start, racking up 377 yards passing. The only downer for the Cats is that former Nebraksa transfer RB Braylon Heard, who dazzled last week with touchdown runs of 73 and 43 yards, is doubtful with an ankle injury.

4 p.m. ET

Eastern Michigan at Florida, SEC Network
The Gators are chomping at the bit to play after last week's deluge wiped away their season opener against Idaho. And guess what? There's a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms on Saturday as well. Because this will be Florida's first game of the season, it's worth noting that UF has the nation's second-longest winning streak in season openers with 24 (behind Nebraska's 29). The Gators' defense should feast on EMU's run-heavy offense. On the other side of the ball, Florida is debuting a no-huddle spread offense that should better suit athletic dual-threat quarterback Jeff Driskel.

Nicholls State at Arkansas, SEC Network
The Razorbacks are riding a losing streak of epic proportions -- a school-record 10 games, dating to last season. They haven't won since Sept. 14, coach Bret Bielema's third game. Almost a year later, Arkansas has a plum chance to get off the schneid against an FCS team that will be facing an SEC foe for the first time in its history. Arkansas might have gained a measure of pride from their first-half performance at Auburn last week, but the offense generated just 61 second-half yards after piling up 267 in the first half. The defense showed it still has a long way to go, giving up 595 yards to the Tigers' offense.

4:30 p.m. ET

No. 15 Ole Miss at Vanderbilt, ESPN
Finally, a competitive game to discuss. This week's sole conference matchup pits permanent interdivision rivals who have been separated by a total of five points in their past two meetings. Ole Miss won last season but is just 1-9 in its past 10 conference openers. These teams have something in common. Vanderbilt would like to forget last week's embarrassing 37-7 loss to a Temple team that won just two games in 2013. Ole Miss would like to forget the first 3½ quarters its offense needed to get back on track against Boise State. Rebels QB Bo Wallace had 387 yards and four touchdowns passing last week but raised some eyebrows with three first-half interceptions.

7 p.m. ET

San Jose State at No. 5 Auburn, ESPN2
Nick Marshall makes his first start of the season at quarterback for the Tigers. He sat the first half last week as punishment for being cited for marijuana possession in July. His understudy, Jeremy Johnson, impressed in Auburn's season-opening win against Arkansas and will surely see time in this one, even if it's just garbage time. The Spartans are an improving Mountain West program, but their SEC history has been flat-out ugly. They have played SEC teams four times and lost all four, giving up 113 points (while scoring just six) in their past two meetings with SEC foes.

East Carolina at No. 21 South Carolina, ESPNU
The Gamecocks heard all offseason about what a dangerous and underrated opponent they've got in Week 2. But South Carolina was humbled last week in the first national spotlight game of the young season and should have every motivation to rebound in a big way against the Pirates. After getting torched for 680 yards and 52 points by Texas A&M's offense, South Carolina has to shore up its pass defense against ECU quarterback Shane Carden, who threw for a school-record 4,139 yards last season and led the Pirates to 10 wins. Gamecocks QB Dylan Thompson and his offensive line performed well in Week 1. This one's all on the defense.

7:30 p.m. ET

Lamar at No. 9 Texas A&M, SEC Network
Who's this Lamar fella and how is he going to keep up with Kenny Hill? In all seriousness, the Lamar Cardinals are a middling FCS program based in Beaumont, Texas. This game promises to be a lopsided affair, but at least Hill likely won't have to play all four quarters. Before his record-breaking coming-out party against the Gamecocks, Hill supposedly was in a close competition for the starting job with talented true freshman Kyle Allen, the No. 1 rated quarterback coming out of high school last year. If Hill plays anywhere close to the level of his debut, Allen should get some quality time with A&M's voluminous weapons.

Sam Houston State at No. 12 LSU, SEC Network
Coming off a dramatic comeback win against then-No. 14 Wisconsin last week, it just doesn't seem fair for the Tigers to face an FCS opponent in Death Valley. The Bearkats are averaging more than 600 yards of offense in their first two games. But LSU has played FCS opponents six times in Les Miles' nine years and outscored them by a combined 232-64. The real intrigue here is the Tigers' QB situation. Sophomore starter Anthony Jennings completed less than half of his attempts last week, but freshman Brandon Harris looked worse in his only series.

Top Week 2 stories:

Spring preview capsules: American

March, 5, 2014
3/05/14
10:30
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Setting up the spring in the American Athletic Conference:

CINCINNATI

Spring start: Feb. 27

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
  • Gunner Kiel: Attention has followed the former high school sensation for years, from Indiana to LSU to Notre Dame and now to Cincinnati. He enters his redshirt sophomore season having never taken a college snap. With sixth-year senior Munchie Legaux still recovering from last year's leg injury, the show is Kiel's to run this spring.
  • Hank Hughes' defense: The former Cincinnati defensive coordinator returns after coaching last season at UConn. There, he orchestrated a rushing defense that finished 23rd nationally despite a 3-9 campaign. He will keep a 4-3 base but loses three all-conference performers from last season: Greg Blair, Jordan Stepp and Deven Drane.
  • RDA IV: Ralph David Abernathy IV has been a playmaker out of the backfield for the Bearcats in recent seasons, but he has moved to the slot this spring. He will probably still line up in the backfield at times, but seeing what the 5-foot-7, 161-pounder can do in space is definitely worth keeping an eye on, especially if the man throwing him the ball, Kiel, lives up to the hype at quarterback.
EAST CAROLINA

Spring start: March 21

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Carden's ascent: Shane Carden could be a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate in 2014. He enters his fifth year in the program coming off a season in which he completed better than 70 percent of his throws for more than 4,000 yards, totaling 43 combined touchdowns between passing and rushing. Similar numbers in a new league will get him much more attention.
  • Replacing Jeremy Grove: The redshirt senior linebacker recently announced that he was hanging up his cleats after several shoulder injuries. The former freshman All-American led the Pirates in tackles for two years running before being limited last season. Expect bigger roles for Zeek Bigger and Brandon Williams, who together last season totaled 10 tackles for loss and three forced turnovers.
  • Filling the backfield void: East Carolina says goodbye to Vintavious Cooper, who turned in consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. While signee Anthony Scott looks like a player who could contribute right away upon his summer arrival, the burden for now falls on the shoulders of three backs who totaled 548 yards on the ground last season.
HOUSTON

Spring start: March 3

Spring game: April 11

What to watch:
  • O'Korn looks to take next step: John O'Korn started 11 games last season at quarterback, proving to be efficient through the air and on the ground while taking the Cougars to a bowl game in their first season in the American. Now he's running an offense that, including him, returns eight starters. He set the bar pretty high as league rookie of the year, but incremental improvement could mean big things for Houston in 2014.
  • CB battles: Zach McMillian and Thomas Bates have graduated, taking their combined 10 forced turnovers from last season out the door with them. Two transfers could find themselves in the mix, as Lee Hightower (Boise State) and Tyler White (Utah) look to battle for starting spots on a defense seeking help in the secondary.
  • Trevon Randle: The former LSU linebacker and three-star recruit now finds himself in more of a pass-rushing role after sitting out the 2013 season for undisclosed reasons. The move is interesting for the 6-foot-2, 218-pound Randle, but the talent is certainly there for Randle to become a playmaker, wherever he ends up playing on the field.
MEMPHIS

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 11

What to watch:
  • Paxton Lynch's growth: Lynch made a name for himself by unseating Jacob Karam as the starting quarterback during fall camp last season. He followed with an up-and-down season for the 3-9 Tigers, showing flashes of playmaking ability and a penchant for turning it over. He is now the hunted, not the hunter, with redshirt freshman Brayden Scott now in the role Lynch played last season in hoping to steal the No. 1 job.
  • Hayes' return: The biggest coup of the offseason was the NCAA granting Brandon Hayes a sixth year of eligibility. The former walk-on was the team's MVP and leading rusher last season, and he will help take plenty of pressure off of whoever emerges as the starting quarterback.
  • Defensive growth: The Tigers were ranked 39th last season in total defense, and eight starters return. The unit gave the offense chances to win last season against league heavyweights Louisville and UCF before falling by a 24-17 margin in both games, and the Tigers welcome two new coaches in Ricky Hunley (line) and Ryan Walters (corners).
SMU

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 5 (no spring game)

What to watch:
  • Replacing Gilbert: SMU opened practice Tuesday with five men in the mix to become its starting quarterback, with Neal Burcham carrying the front-runner status after starting the final two games last season in place of Garrett Gilbert (knee), who totaled nearly 3,800 yards rushing and passing last season, accounting for 27 scores.
  • Receiver depth: The Mustangs are relatively thin at the position following the graduation of two of its top three receivers from last season, as Jeremy Johnson and Keenan Holman each tallied more than 1,000 yards in 2013. Deion Sanders Jr., meanwhile, will miss spring practice because of a shoulder injury.
  • The next Acker: Cornerback Kenneth Acker starred with the Mustangs, earning second-team all-conference distinction after finishing second in the league in passes defended (16) and tallying a team-best three interceptions on the season. Jay Scott, who forced three turnovers himself last season, is also gone. Talented safety Shakiel Randolph could see his role increased after showing plenty of promise in his first two seasons, including a 37-tackle campaign last season.
TEMPLE

Spring start: March 24

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Receiver help: Temple will open spring practice without Robbie Anderson, the Owls' top receiver from last season, who is no longer with the team. Both Anderson and the graduated Ryan Alderman combined for more than 1,300 yards last season, so the pressure will be on Jalen Fitzpatrick and John Christopher to carry bigger workloads going into 2014. They'll have a familiar Philly face coaching them, with former QB Adam DiMichele now the Owls' receivers coach.
  • Aerial attack: One silver lining from a 2-10 campaign last season? P.J. Walker, who rebounded after losing the preseason quarterback battle and ended up starting the season's final seven games, threw for 2,084 yards. He was part of a group that passed for the most yards ever (2,996) by a Temple team, a promising sign moving forward for the second-year player (and his second-year coach, Matt Rhule).
  • Tyler Matakevich: The kid just keeps on getting better, as the linebacker followed up his impressive rookie season by tallying 137 total tackles — including 11.5 for loss — picking off one pass, recovering two fumbles and forcing three more. He wears a single-digit jersey, No. 8, to signify his toughness, and he is a great central piece for the defense to build around. Temple was ranked 109th overall in yards allowed last season.
TULANE

Spring start: Feb. 7

Spring game: Feb. 26 (no spring game)

What to watch:
  • Injuries: The situation is a little different here with Tulane, which is already finished with its spring season, allowing us to instead look back. And the Green Wave even ended up finishing earlier than anticipated, as coach Curtis Johnson ended it after Feb. 26, cutting the final two practices because of injuries. Among the walking wounded throughout last month: Linebacker Nico Marley, running back Sherman Badie and linebackers Sergio Medina and Edward Williams, who both missed all of spring because of pre-existing injuries.
  • QB battle: Tanner Lee is seemingly the front-runner to start in 2014 after redshirting as a freshman this past fall. A local prospect from Jesuit High, he passed for nearly 4,000 yards in high school while tallying 39 touchdowns and just nine interceptions, and he received a much heavier workload this spring after the Green Wave struggled with consistency in the passing game in 2013.
  • Filling the backfield void: Orleans Darkwa is gone after totaling 920 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. Tulane might be turning to another redshirt freshman, with Badie getting plenty of attention this spring before suffering a concussion down the stretch. Senior Rob Kelley (420 yards in 2013) and three other backfield contributors from last season return to give this unit a bit of depth.
TULSA

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Defensive stability: No one in the program is happy following a 3-9 campaign last fall, but the Golden Hurricane bring back plenty of experience from last season as they move into Year 1 in the American. Ten starters are back on defense. Despite finishing just 102nd in yards allowed last season, that gives the program a nice foundation as it welcomes in a tougher slate of opponents.
  • Josh Blankenship and the offense: Head coach Bill Blankenship's newest hire is his son, Josh, who was brought in to coach quarterbacks and rework an offense that finished 100th overall last season. The former Muskogee High head coach is part of a restructured offensive staff after coordinator Greg Peterson left the program and Bill Blankenship gave up coaching the QBs.
  • Backfield holes: Trey Watts and Ja'Terian Douglas are gone after totaling nearly 1,700 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Reinforcements are on the way in three running back signees from this recruiting cycle, with one of them, juco transfer Tavarreon Dickerson, enrolling early and looking to make an impact after averaging 8.5 yards per carry last season at Trinity Valley.
UCF

Spring start: March 12

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Like after Bortles: Blake Bortles will be examined and re-examined in the public eye daily before the NFL draft, and his replacement back at UCF has some major shoes to fill. His backup last season, Justin Holman, is the most experienced of a three-man group that includes early enrollee and former SMU commit Tyler Harris.
  • Replacing Storm Johnson: Johnson is gone after rushing for 1,139 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, and Will Stanback will likely have to prepare for a much bigger role in his sophomore year after getting 105 carries in his rookie campaign of 2013. There are plenty of other bodies back there, but none managed the workload Stanback carried last season as a freshman.
  • Offensive line depth: Brent Key is now the assistant head coach of the offense, and he will serve as offensive line coach as well. The spring will be very important in helping to sort out the chaos up front, and one player worth keeping an eye will be Chester Brown, who saw limited action last season after switching from the defensive line in fall camp.
UCONN

Spring start: March 10

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • New leader: Bob Diaco had an introductory news conference like few others. The former Notre Dame defensive coordinator is filled with energy, and he certainly brings a new approach atop the program following the Paul Pasqualoni and Randy Edsall eras. He already has made some cosmetic changes in the training facility, but bringing immediate change on the field is a bigger challenge in 2014.
  • Casey Cochran. The Huskies won their final three games last season, putting up 28 or more points in all three contests. Cochran passed for a school-record 461 yards in the finale, and seeing how he and the rest of the quarterbacks develop under this new staff will go a long way toward determining what UConn can do next season.
  • Defensive replenishments. For all of their struggles in recent years, the Huskies haven't lacked for talent or effort on the defensive side of the ball. That shouldn't change under Diaco, who won the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach as Notre Dame's defensive coordinator in 2012. But replacing standouts such as Shamar Stephen and Yawin Smallwood won't be easy.
USF

Spring start: Feb. 26

Spring game: March 29

What to watch:
  • QB battle: Penn State transfer Steven Bench was named the starter at midseason in 2013, but he found himself behind freshman Mike White after an injury. Both quarterbacks turned the ball over way too much last season, and increased production from that position is crucial if Willie Taggart wants to get this program turned around in his second season as head coach.
  • Running backs: The battle to replace Marcus Shaw is on after his 765-yard season in 2013. Mike Pierre, Willie Davis and Darius Tice are the men being counted on now in the backfield, but no player from that trio carried the ball more than 41 times or topped 141 rushing yards for the season.
  • Jamie Byrd: Byrd enrolled at USF this January following a stint at Iowa Western Community College, and he has two years of eligibility remaining. He had 53 tackles, two interceptions, seven passes defended and a fumble recovery last season, and the hard-hitting speedster could make an early impact with the Bulls in the secondary.

American spring preview

March, 5, 2014
3/05/14
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Another year, another set of fresh faces.

And, of course, new challenges, as well.

This is life now in the American Athletic Conference, which won’t complete its makeover complete until next season, when Navy joins the fold as a football-only member.

For now, it watches two others walk out the door while welcoming three new programs into the fold.

Goodbye, Louisville and Rutgers. Hello, East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa.

And, if last season is any indication, the newcomers may not be second-class citizens upon their arrivals.

"There's enough talent around the country that creates a little bit more parity than people are talking about now," said East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeil. "I know they're trying to talk about these conferences and those conferences. Well, I've been to those conferences, and there's good football players in each league. And I feel we're ready to compete with anyone. I'm not afraid to say that, and I know other coaches in the league are not, either."

That became evident through UCF's historic campaign in the remodeled league's debut last season, with the Knights going 12-1 and topping Baylor in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. These, of course, were the same Knights that lost twice to Tulsa a year earlier, and the Golden Hurricane now enter the American coming off a disappointing 3-9 season last fall.

That is all encouraging from one perspective. But the optimist's approach shows a similar surprising run could be on the horizon in 2014.

"East Carolina is going to have a huge advantage in our conference. I think they're going to be the next guys, to be honest, similar to UCF," said conference commissioner Mike Aresco.

"Everything's in place: They've got a Heisman candidate, they've got just some tremendous players and I think they're going to make a mark quickly because they've never had this kind of TV exposure. They've got a 50,000-seat stadium and they fill it up all the time. Their quarterback Shane Carden I think will be a Heisman candidate. I think they're the kind of team that will really benefit."

Among the old guard, UConn made a major move by hiring prized Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco to head its program. Cincinnati has another year under Tommy Tuberville and could possibly start the most talked about quarterback to never take a college snap in Gunner Kiel.

The American begins life in the post-BCS era with no automatic entry to access bowls. It is a member of a group of five conferences from within which the top overall team will be granted a berth at the adults' postseason table.

It's not exactly ideal, but after enduring a year of turmoil and coming out on the other end with a BCS win and several probable high draft picks to its name, the league enters its next phase with a much more positive outlook.

A closer look at East Carolina’s win over Ohio on Monday in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl St. Petersburg in St. Petersburg, Fla., which snapped a four-game postseason losing streak for the program.

It was over when: In a back-and-forth battle, the Pirates were able to make the plays that mattered most down the stretch and iced the game with an interception by Damon Magazu as the clock ticked under 7 minutes in the fourth quarter. The ensuing drive didn’t produce any points for East Carolina, but coming on the heels of a touchdown on a trick play, the turnover kept the momentum squarely in its favor down the stretch and killed off a bit of time to give coach Ruffin McNeill his first bowl victory.

Game ball goes to: The Pirates racked up yardage through the air and wound up with a pair of passing touchdowns, but they clearly weren’t playing quite up to their high standards and even looked a bit shaky at times. But the rushing attack more than made up for it as Vintavious Cooper had his way with the Bobcats, using some shifty moves and incredible vision to set a career high with 198 yards and two touchdowns.

Stat of the game: A couple of fourth-down conversions in the red zone came up short, but that was about the only black mark for the Pirates as they moved the ball with relative ease and dominated time of possession. In all, East Carolina put up 568 yards of offense and held the football for more than 33 minutes in what ended up being a comfortable victory.

Best call: The passing game wasn’t quite as sharp as usual, but the Pirates jump-started it down the stretch by flipping the script and throwing it to Shane Carden. A double-pass from Cam Worthy to the junior quarterback midway through the fourth quarter helped seal the deal. Carden came down with the 14-yard toss with two Ohio defensive backs around him -- and then celebrated by pretending he couldn’t shake the football free from his grip.

What it means: The Pirates showed signs of progress a year ago in McNeill’s third season with eight wins, but ending a four-bowl losing streak for the program and clinching a 10-win campaign made it obvious his team is trending in the right direction as it prepares for a move to the American Athletic Conference.

To watch the trophy presentation of the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl St. Petersburg, click here.

Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl preview

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
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A glance at the lone game on Monday’s schedule, a clash between Ohio (7-5) and East Carolina (9-3) in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl (TV: ESPN, 2 p.m. ET).

Who to watch: Shane Carden might have been working well outside of the spotlight compared to the rest of the nation’s most prolific quarterbacks, but he has earned the right to be in that conversation with another eye-popping statistical season leading the attack for the Pirates. The junior ranks sixth in the country in passing yardage with 3,866 in the regular season, two spots ahead of a pair of guys with Heisman Trophies on their mantles in Jameis Winston and Johnny Manziel. While Carden gets nowhere near the acclaim, he has steadily picked apart defenses all season, throwing for more than 300 yards in seven games thanks in part to a productive partnership with junior wide receiver Justin Hardy that generated 105 receptions, more than 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns.

What to watch: With almost no bowl history to speak of until 2007, coach Frank Solich has turned the Bobcats into a fixture of the postseason recently, hitting the road around the holidays for five straight seasons -- and playing some pretty entertaining affairs along the way. Ohio won a thriller two years ago over Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl and backed that up with a blowout win over Louisiana-Monroe in the Independence Bowl. The Bobcats will need a defense that has had its ups and downs to play like the unit that allowed a total of three points in consecutive outings in September and not the one that was gouged for 49 and 44 points in losses to Bowling Green and Kent State.

Why to watch: For starters, the Bobcats and Pirates have the stage all to themselves, and with only one bowl on the docket, they offer the only college football fix of the day. But beyond that, East Carolina has an offense built to put up fireworks and provide some entertainment. And under Solich, the Bobcats have rarely backed down from a challenge and have proved to be a motivated bunch in bowl games recently.

Prediction: East Carolina 41, Ohio 27


The offensive explosion most expected didn't disappoint, as Louisiana-Lafayette and East Carolina lit up the scoreboard in the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl. The Ragin' Cajuns and Pirates combined for 45 points in the second quarter and spent much of the game in plus territory. East Carolina erased a 21-point first-half deficit, but couldn't convert enough drives into touchdowns as Louisiana-Lafayette celebrated a New Orleans Bowl championship for the second consecutive year.

Let's take a quick look at what happened in the Big Easy ...

It was over when: A fourth-down rollout pass from East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden to wide receiver Andrew Bodenheimer was broken up by Louisiana-Lafayette cornerback Melvin White near the sideline with 2:32 left. Ragin' Cajuns star kicker Brett Baer, who had booted the game-wining field goal in last year's New Orleans Bowl, secured another by converting a 39-yard field goal try with 10 seconds left. After beginning the game with three consecutive three-and-outs, East Carolina had moved the ball well throughout the second half until the decisive drive.

Game ball goes to: Louisiana-Lafayette quarterback Terrance Broadway. The sophomore was the most dynamic player on the field at the dome despite playing through an apparent right shoulder injury. He completed 21 of 31 passes for 316 yards with a touchdown and an interception, and he added 108 rushing yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. Broadway set the team's single-season total offense record on a third-quarter run, and finished with 416 yards on the day. Cajuns sophomore running back Alonzo Harris also deserves a shoutout after going for 117 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries.

Stat of the game: Both teams entered the game ranked in the top five nationally in red zone offense -- Louisiana-Lafayette tied for second (94 percent), East Carolina tied for fifth (92 percent) -- and they didn't disappoint. The Ragin' Cajuns and Pirates combined to go 10-for-10 on red zone scores, with eight touchdowns and two field goals.

Unsung hero: Louisiana-Lafayette cornerback Jemarious Moten. The first-team All-Sun Belt selection stepped up in his final collegiate game. After a Broadway interception off a deflection set up East Carolina in Cajuns territory early in the fourth quarter, Moten responded with an interception of Carden near the 10-yard line. He also had a third-down pass breakup midway through the fourth. Although he should have had more than one interception -- and a possible pick-six off a trick play -- he certainly was a factor for the Louisiana-Lafayette defense.

What it means: The Louisiana-Lafayette program has arrived under coach Mark Hudspeth, recording consecutive nine-win seasons and consecutive bowl victories. Before last year's New Orleans Bowl, the Cajuns hadn't played in the postseason since the 1970 season (in the Grantland Rice Bowl). Broadway emerged as a star this fall and should give Louisiana-Lafayette an excellent chance to compete for a Sun Belt title in 2013. East Carolina also has a promising young quarterback in Carden, but the Pirates need to rediscover their postseason mojo after dropping their fourth straight bowl game.
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
12/22/12
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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.

North Carolina eases to win over ECU

September, 22, 2012
9/22/12
7:03
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North Carolina overcame yet another slow start to beat East Carolina 27-6 on Saturday.

It was not the best first half for the Tar Heels, who only led 10-6 going into the break. There were a few breakdowns deep inside East Carolina territory that cost them more, but some of those problems were corrected in the second half. Bryn Renner opened the third quarter with a 62-yard touchdown pass to Sean Tapley and the Heels cruised from there.

A big reason why UNC was able to shut down East Carolina in the second half was the play of its defensive front, which came to life to stuff quarterback Shane Carden. Kevin Reddick had one outstanding play in particular, sacking Carden and forcing a fumble that North Carolina recovered. In all, North Carolina finished with seven sacks and held the Pirates to 233 yards.

Renner finished 27-of-43 for 321 yards and two touchdowns.

Running back Giovani Bernard was back in the starting lineup after missing the last two games with a knee injury, and had 102 yards combined rushing and receiving, and two touchdowns. His 4-yard run in the third quarter essentially put the game out of reach.

One other record note in this game: Kicker Casey Barth set the school record for extra points made.
Recently, several of my co-workers have been examining the strongest and weakest positions for each team this spring. I thought I would jump in on the action.

During the next few weeks, I’m going to look at the strengths and weaknesses of every team I cover. They’ll be posted alphabetically by conference. So let’s start with Conference USA and the spring superlatives for East Carolina.

Strongest position: Wide receiver

Key returners: Senior Dwayne Harris (83 catches, 978 yards, seven touchdowns), junior Darryl Freeney (48 catches, 718 yards, three touchdowns), junior Joe Womack (12 catches, 141 yards), sophomore Andrew Bodenheimer (six catches, 87 yards)

Key departures: Alex Taylor (35 catches, 367 yards), Jamar Bryant (22 catches, 205 yards, two touchdowns), Reyn Willis (six catches, 107 yards, one touchdown).

The skinny: The receiver position is the deepest of all positions for the Pirates this spring, and that depth will be critical as they switch to a Texas Tech spread style of offense. Harris is one of the most dynamic players in the country both as a receiver and as a kick returner, and he will be East Carolina’s premier receiver yet again.

Weakest position: Quarterback

Key returners: Sophomore Josh Jordan (three career games, 5 of 7 passing, 61 yards), redshirt freshman Rio Johnson.

Key departures: Patrick Pinkney (32 career starts, 6,980 career passing yards, 39 career passing touchdowns, 23 career interceptions)

The skinny: East Carolina has just two scholarship quarterbacks heading into the spring and neither has significant experience. Offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley is looking for a quarterback who can spread the ball around and he might not find that guy this spring. On the bright side, the Pirates did get a commitment from former Boston College quarterback Dominique Davis in December, but he didn’t enroll in January, which voided his letter of intent. However, hopes are high that Davis does end up in Greenville in August, joining true freshman Shane Carden.

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