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East Carolina (9-4) vs. Kentucky (6-6)
Jan. 2, 5 p.m. ET, ESPN
Reason To Watch: What else are you going to do between the Cotton Bowl and the Sugar Bowl?
Sorry, Pirates and Wildcats faithful, but that's my best pitch for a game that has no business taking place in January. Both teams are resoundingly mediocre (and probably less than mediocre in Kentucky's case). Neither side possesses a flashy offense to captivate the non-affiliated fan -- the Pirates rank 83rd in total offense (336 ypg), while the Wildcats sit at No. 105 (298.42). And the two best players on the field may be the punters, ECU's Matt Dodge and UK's Tim Masthay, both of whom earned honorable mention honors on SI.com's All-America teams. (Though I'd be remiss not to mention Kentucky CB Trevard Lindley, a player with an NFL future.)
The Pirates opened the season with back-to-back upsets over Virginia Tech and West Virginia, but soon after they suffered a three-game losing streak to N.C. State, Houston and Virginia. In conference play, they barely slipped by UCF, Marshall and UAB -- three teams that finished at 4-8.
The 'Cats kicked off the '08 campaign with four wins over nonconference foes ... then went 2-6 in SEC play.
Keep An Eye On: Kentucky QB Mike Hartline. The Cats' offense has been ravaged by injuries (specifically, in the knee region) all season. Top receiver Dicky Lyons Jr. and leading rusher Derrick Locke suffered season-ending knee injuries in back-to-back weeks. Then QB Randall Cobb, who started Kentucky's last four games, injured his knee in the season finale and was ruled out of the Liberty Bowl after arthroscopic surgery. Now the 'Cats are back to Hartline, who started the first eight games of the season before being benched. Hartline's 8-to-7 touchdown-to-interception rate is a cause for alarm in this game, as ECU's ball-hawking defense ranks fifth nationally with 21 interceptions. If there's one player on either side who can win or lose this ballgame, it's Hartline.
Final Analysis: OK, maybe I was a little too harsh on ECU in my opening commentary. After all, the Pirates did win the C-USA crown and rack up nine wins in the process. Skip Holtz's D is much more talented than the national rankings indicate. So long as Bad Patrick Pinkney doesn't rear his ugly head -- ECU's QB is overwhelmingly unpredictable from game to game -- the Pirates should prevail.
The Pick: East Carolina 23, Kentucky 13