In some ways it is fitting that the two teams playing in the inaugural Papajohns.com bowl are a very unlikely pairing in a bowl game. Two former Conference USA rivals will hit the field in Birmingham, as East Carolina (7-5) and South Florida (8-4) will play on December 23rd.
In only its sixth season at the Division I-A level, South Florida will be making its second consecutive bowl appearance after not making one in its first four seasons. After its second straight fourth place finish in the Big East, the Bulls will look to improve upon a 14-0 loss last season in the Meineke Car Care Bowl to N.C. State.
Things are certainly looking up for the Bulls and head coach Jim Leavitt. In their last game, the Bulls went into Morgantown and defeated West Virginia, 24-19, and at the time, knocked off what was the No. 7 team in the BCS Standings. Looking at the series history, USF certainly has the advantage. When the Bulls were in C-USA, they met East Carolina three times, winning each game between 2002-04.
One reason for the optimism around the USF team is freshman QB Matt Grothe. He was named Big East Rookie of the Year, after really coming into his own late in the season when the Bulls won three of their last four games. Grothe's numbers, as a whole, may not look that impressive (14 TDs, 14 INTs), but in his last four games, he is averaging 265 yards through the air. Grothe is also the leading rusher for the Bulls, as he is the centerpiece of the offense. He has averaged 50 yards rushing on the ground, and reached the end zone another nine times rushing.
East Carolina is looking to get some stability back after missing a bowl the last five seasons. The Pirates' last appearance came in 2001 with a heartbreaking 64-61 Double Overtime loss in the GMAC Bowl to Marshall. ECU was able to get back to a bowl game this year, thanks to five wins in its last six games.
ECU QB James Pinkney is having a stellar end to his career. The three-year starter has thrown for 2,658 yards and 11 touchdowns this season, and ran for four more. Even more impressively, Pinkney has completed a little over 63-percent of his passes. However, Pinkney could have a tough time against the USF defense. Bulls' cornerback Trae Williams, who leads the Big East with seven interceptions, will likely draw the assignment of leading receiver Aundre Allison. Look for ECU to try and pound it on the ground with leading rusher Brandon Fractious (675 yards, 4.5 yards per carry).
It may be easier for ECU to move the ball on the ground, especiallyconsidering the USF defense is prone to the run. The Bulls have given up an average of 120 yards rushing. Either way, fans of Conference USA will have flashbacks from a couple of seasons ago, before USF made the big step up to the Big East.
Douglas Kroll is an independent contributor to College Football Poll.com.