The big picture: East Carolina was favored to win Conference USA, but the Pirates lost to Marshall 59-28 in the final game of the regular season. Making their seventh bowl appearance in the past eight years, the Pirates, who earned their first 10-win season since going 11-1 in 1991, earned road victories over North Carolina and N.C. State and almost captured a third win over another Atlantic Coast Conference team before suffering a 15-10 defeat to Virginia Tech. The Pirates, who rank 10th in the FBS with a school-record 40.4 points per game and passing yards per game (331.5), established program records for total points (485) and first downs (316). With 50-plus points scored in five contests this season, ECU expects to use the turf of Tropicana Field to its full advantage. In his ninth season as head coach at Ohio, Frank Solich has guided the Bobcats to their fifth consecutive bowl game, including victories in the past two. After beginning the 2013 campaign with high hopes, the Bobcats veered off course towards the end of the regular season with three defeats in their last four contests. Ohio, which filled the slot originally contracted to the American Athletic Conference, will be seeking its third win this year over a C-USA team after back-to-back wins over North Texas and Marshall in early September. Despite scoring a total of 46 points in their five losses, the Bobcats feature an explosive offense, scoring 34 points or more in all but one of their wins.
Who to watch: For a program that currently has 10 players on NFL rosters, including Tennessee Titans running back and 2009 Offensive Player of the Year Chris Johnson, East Carolina may possess its best offensive roster ever with explosive threats at quarterback, wide receiver and halfback. Pirates junior quarterback Shane Carden was named Conference USA’s Most Valuable Player after leading the nation in completion percentage (71.0) and ranked in the top 10 in several categories including completions (5th/29.83), passing yards (6th/3,866 yards) and TD passes (8th/32). Carden was also a semifinalist for the Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Award, which is given to the top offensive player in Division I football and honors the Heisman Trophy winner at Texas and an NFL Hall of Fame running back. Junior wide receiver Justin Hardy was selected to the All-Conference USA Football Team — along with Carden and senior OL Will Simmons — for the second straight year after establishing new single-season records for receptions (105) and receiving yards (1,218). Hardy, who set an ECU career record for receiving touchdowns with 25, ranks fifth nationally in receptions per game with 8.8. Hardy is the first Pirate to have consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Senior running back Vintavious Cooper led the team with 995 yards rushing and 11 TDs, followed by Carden with 10 rushing touchdowns. (995 yards rushing, 11 TDs) leading the way.
Ohio hopes to counter ECU’s explosive offense with a stout defense and well-equipped special teams. Sophomore Devin Bass and senior Travis Carrie were named to the 2013 Mid-American Conference First Team for kickoff and punt return specialists. Bass, who also received All-MAC Second Team honors as a cornerback, averaged 21.3 yards per kick return and finished the season with 395 yards. On defense, the 5-foot-9 corner led the team with 15 passes defended and ranked 12th in the nation with 1.4 passes defended per game, which ranked third in the MAC. Carrie, who also earned Third Team honors as a cornerback, had 267 punt return yards, averaging 12.7 yards per return, which led the conference for much of the season. The 5-foot-11 corner led the team with four interceptions and finished the season with 103 interception return yards. Sophomore kicker Josiah Yazdani earned Second Team honors after going a perfect 12-for-12 on field goals, finishing the 2013 campaign as just one of four kickers in the nation to not miss a field goal. While not nearly as explosive on offense, Ohio enters the game with a signal-caller just as capable of putting up solid numbers. Senior quarterback Tyler Tettleton, who owns 27 school records, had a solid season with 2,623 yards passing and 20 TDs. Tettleton’s top target is senior wide receiver Donte Foster, who was selected to the MAC Second Team after posting a single-season career best 858 receiving yards. The 6-foot-1 receiver also had six receptions for touchdowns, giving him a school-record 20 TDs for his career.
Top 5 Reasons To Go:
1. Most of the bowl games so far have gone over the predicted over/under for total points so you should see a lot of points scored.
2. If the Bucs were smart, scouts from the team should be on hand to take a look at Carden and Hardy. The quarterback has a solid chance to make a NFL roster and Hardy could possibly be a standout on Sundays.
3. It’s a Monday afternoon game, so it’s a great excuse to get your Christmas vacation started early.
4. Football on the turf that normally serves as a baseball diamond. Pretty cool stuff.
5. You’ll get a sneak preview of the changes in the centerfield seating arrangement at the Trop.
Matchup question: How will Hardy do against Ohio's 28th-ranked pass defense and vice versa? Hardy is clearly a threat on every passing play and can put up some serious numbers as evident by his 17 catch, 230-yard performance at Tulane this season. It will be intriguing to see who Solich matches up against Hardy.