Overview: The 2013 season was ECU’s final year in Conference USA, and they certainly made the most of it. The Pirates finished their campaign with a 10-3 record, including a 6-2-conference mark. After capping of their year with a 37-20 win over Ohio University in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl, head coach Ruffin McNeill’s program officially became a member in the newly-formed American Athletic Conference (most of what was the Big East). McNeill (an ECU alumni) will be starting his fifth season as head coach and has tallied a 29-22 overall record since 2010.
With all of the conference realignment taking place across the college football landscape, the American Athletic Conference has a number of former Conference USA and Big East programs. That doesn’t mean, however, that McNeill shied away from scheduling difficult out of conference opponents. In the first three weeks of September, McNeill’s team will play at South Carolina, at Virginia Tech and home against North Carolina. ECU already has proven they have the ability to hang with Larry Fedora’s fast-paced spread attack, and given what happened the last time around, the Pirates are going to be plenty confident when the Tar Heels come to town in late September.
This is a team whose offense will go far as standout quarterback Shane Carden can take them. Carden ranked second in completion percentage (70.5), seventh in yards (4,139) and tied for eighth in TDs (33) nationally last season. The Houston, Tex. native was voted as Conference USA’s most valuable player in 2013 and will enter his second full season as a starter on the Maxwell Award Watch List, which is given to the national player of the year. Joining Carden on that list is wide receiver Justin Hardy, who will be returning for his senior season. The veteran slot man was third in the nation last year with 114 receptions, and with Carden under center, there is no reason to believe that Hardy can’t put up those same type of numbers.
In the backfield, the Pirates are going to have to contend with the graduation of 1,000-yard rusher Vintavious Cooper. What’s scary for this offense is that the team’s best running option heading into this season is Carden, who rushed for 302 yards (excluding sack yardage) and 10 touchdowns. Unless a dominant player emerges from camp, expect a running back by committee approach that involves junior college transfer Breon Allen, who had just 62 carries last year, and senior Chris Hariston, whose career has been marred by injuries. If the offense can’t get production from the rushing attack, then this is a team that won’t be nearly as dangerous as the team that hung 55 points on Fedora’s defense last fall.
With all of the skill on the offensive side of the ball in 2013, this was a defense that flew a little bit under the radar. Other than a devastating 59-28 blowout loss to Marshall in the regular season finale, the Pirates only gave up 30 points or more three times all season. On average, the defense surrendered 368.8 yards per game, but with the offense averaging slightly over 40 points per game, the secondary was facing pass-heavy offenses trying to play catch up.
The real concern now is trying to replace the loss of the team’s two leading tacklers from last season. Outside linebacker Derrell Johnson (who signed as an undrafted free agent with the Miami Dolphins) and safety Damon Magazu were ball hawks that combined for 160 total tackles. A lot of the tackling production now will have to come from up the middle where Zeek Bigger (77 total tackles) and Brandon Williams (69 total tackles) will need to hold the fort at the inside linebacker positions. This unit also did a respectable job of getting to opposing quarterbacks, as ECU defenders totaled 38 sacks (good for 14th in the nation). More than half of those sacks came from three seniors, so if current players don’t produce, this is a group that could be taking a step back in 2014.
Historical Outlook: ECU’s drubbing of UNC last year was the first time the Pirates had beaten the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill since 1975. Since 1972 these two programs have met 16 times with North Carolina prevailing in all but four of those games (the lone tie in the series came in 1979). Since 2006, ECU has been bowl eligible six times and has played the Tar Heels every year dating back to 2009.
Notable Matchups: ECU has loaded their September docket with games at South Carolina, at Virginia Tech and home against North Carolina. The Pirates’ road schedule will spread them out all over the country to locations such as Philadelphia, Tulsa, Cincinnati and Tampa Bay.