Overview: Ruffin McNeill embarks on his fourth year at ECU after posting an 8-5 record last fall that marked the school's first winning season since the Skip Holtz era. McNeill's team finished 7-1 in Conference USA in 2012 and ended up one game shy of competing for the league championship. Their lone conference defeat came occurred at Central Florida on Oct. 4. The season culminated in a bowl appearance in the 2012 New Orleans Bowl where the Pirates fell to Louisiana-Lafayette, 43-34.
The 2013 season will be one of high expectations for East Carolina. Many pundits have picked the Pirates as favorites to win the East Division in Conference USA. Weapons return to an already dangerous offensive attack that led the conference in red zone scoring efficiency (92.6 percent). Quarterback Shane Carden enters his junior year and his second season at the helm following a solid sophomore campaign. The Houston, Tex. native threw for 3,116 yards with a 66.6 percent completion percentage while tossing 23 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions. The man making the majority of the catches for Carden was junior wide out Justin Hardy, who snagged 88 receptions for 1,105 yards and 11 touchdowns and will once again be the focal point this fall. The Pirates' passing attack averaged over 273 yards per game in 2012, good for 36th nationally and fifth in Conference USA.
The ground game should be a positive as well as leading rusher Vintavious Cooper returns for his senior season after gaining 1,049 yards on the ground in 2012. Cooper averaged 5.25 yards per carry and found the end zone on seven occasions. As a whole, the Pirates return seven starters on offense.
The question that looms over East Carolina is whether or not its defense can force some stops following another subpar season. The Pirates ranked 87th in total defense (430 ypg) and allowed 31.6 points per game. ECU's pass defense ranked a dismal 108th nationally, giving up 275 yards per game. Eight defensive starters return, including a pair of star linebackers in Jeremy Grove and Derrell Johnson. Johnson led the team in sacks (6,5) in 2012 while Grove paced the Pirates with 83 tackles.
Historic Breakdown: The series between the Tar Heels and the Pirates is a rather one-sided affair, historically speaking. North Carolina holds a 12-2-1 overall record. The last victory for East Carolina came in 2007 during Butch Davis's first season at UNC. The Pirates won a thrilling 34-31 contest at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium that season, Since then, however, North Carolina has won four straight, including a dominant 27-6 victory last fall.
"The part that's gratifying is the core that we have. Those guys have been around us, been around the program. They understand what it takes. We talk every day about the goals and vision, but also about the day-to-day process. We've got a great group of guys that embrace that." – McNeill
"We've got some new guys coming in and pretty much the same offensive line, so I'm really looking forward to this season. … The sky really is the limit for us." – Carden
"We have high expectations within the program. We talk about wanting to start fast, but we also want to make sure that at the end, we're still in that same position." – McNeill
East Carolina's schedule sets up to have a mix between favorable conference matchups along with three tough ACC games against North Carolina, Virginia Tech and N.C. State. The Hokies will travel to Greenville and face a team that has given them fits in recent years, while the Pirates will travel to both in-state schools. The two toughest conference tests both take place in November – home versus Tulsa on Nov. 9 and on the road at Marshall on Nov. 29. Those games will determine the ceiling for one of the most talented teams in recent years for the Pirates.