Four Downs: Florida keeps SEC East perfect with Birmingham Bowl win

Adam Lane had a 2-yard touchdown run as the Gators moved the SEC East to 5-0 this postseason.

Marvin Gentry/Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Going inside Florida’s 28-20 win over East Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl.

The Birmingham Bowl doesn’t have the mystique of some of the SEC’s other bowl destinations, but it provided one of the league’s more resounding statements of this postseason:

The East has the last laugh.

The division hasn’t won a conference title since Tim Tebow and Florida did so in 2008 and this season, while the West was being touted as the deepest division in the nation with Alabama, Mississippi State and Auburn all at one time or another in the playoff mix, the East was in shambles. Underscoring it all, Missouri, the team it sent as its representative to Atlanta for the conference title game, was shutout 34-0 by second-place Georgia and lost to Indiana, which would go 1-7 in the Big Ten.

All that being said, the West went 2-5 in bowl games — only Texas A&M (Liberty Bowl vs. West Virginia) and Arkansas (Texas Bowl vs. Texas) won — including top-ranked Alabama’s loss to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl national semifinal. The East, meanwhile,  improved to 5-0 after the Gators’ win over East Carolina.

To review the East’s wins, No. 13 Georgia beat No. 21 Louisville in the Belk Bowl; No. 16 Missouri topped No. 25 Minnesota in the Citrus Bowl; South Carolina edged Miami in the Independence Bowl; and Tennessee downed Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl.

Chances are this isn’t going to alter the landscape in the SEC, but the East can at least go into the recruiting season with some unexpected ammo.

LEAVING SO SOON?

Among the few bright spots on this Gators team was Vernon Hargreaves III, the sophomore cornerback who was named a second-team All-American after totaling 42 tackles, two interceptions and a team-high 12 pass breakups.

But he had a daunting task ahead of him at Legion Field vs. Pirates wide receiver Justin Hardy, the NCAA’s all-time receptions leader.

The raw numbers leaned toward Hardy. Thrown to 19 times, he had a game-high 11 receptions for 160 yards and a 3-yard touchdown to open the game’s scoring, but Hargreaves had his moments, including the game-clinching interception.

Florida did its part to confuse Hardy and quarterback Shane Carden, lining Hargreaves up on different receivers then switching off after the snap. The tactic all but denied the Pirates a touchdown in the fourth quarter on third-and-six at the Gators’ 7-yard line as Carden dumped off to Harding, who took his eyes off the ball with Hargreaves closing and dropped the pass.

Then, in a one-on-one situation with the Pirates eyeing the game-tying touchdown with 1:20 to play, Carden lofted the ball toward Hardy in the end zone, but Hargreaves came down with the pick to clinch the win.

Gators defensive end Dante Fowler made his intentions clear after coach Will Muschamp’s firing, tweeting "I came in with champ. I’m leaving with Him. Simple as that."

It’s not as if the junior has much more to prove in a Florida uniform. Fowler had a team-best 12 tackles for loss this season, including 5 1/2 sacks and 15 QB hurries and was named a second team-All-American. He is a projected top-10 pick in April’s NFL draft.

BOWL RECORDS BY CONFERENCE

He capped his career with three tackles, two QB hurries and three sacks, the last of which came with Florida only rushing three against seven blockers.

Despite the Gators’ offensive struggles in the Muschamp era — something that they’re hoping can be resolved by bringing in the offensive-minded Jim McElwain — the D remained stout. During Muschamp’s five years, Florida ranked in the top 10 nationally every season and Fowler was a big reason for that the past three years.

In a bizarre sequence, Carden hit receiver Isaiah Jones, who spun and was hit by Brian Poole, forcing a fumble. But the ball bounced off the knee of the Gators’ Joey Ivie and into the hands of ECU’s Jimmy Williams, who set the Pirates up at Florida’s 5-yard line.

The end result of that drive was Hargreaves picking off Carden. It was the second game to include a strange play near the end for the Pirates, who were beaten by as UCF with a 51-yard Hail Mary as time expired their last time out.

But instead of drawing parallels to that disastrous finish for East Carolina, there’s this nugget: the AAC newbies were at their very best this season vs. the nation’s top conferences.

The Pirates took No. 21 South Carolina to the brink before falling 33-23, then followed that by beating No. 17 Virginia Tech (28-21) and North Carolina (70-41) in consecutive weeks. They rose as high as No. 23 before a difficult five-game stretch in which they fell to Temple, Cincinnati and the Knights, but East Carolina stepped up once again facing a Power 5 team on Saturday.

ECU was ultimately denied its first win over an SEC team not named South Carolina — which the Pirates have beaten four times — but the Pirates won’t have to wait long to get another shot at these Gators. They meet on Sept. 12 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.