USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Begin with the good news. East Carolina hit a crisis point from 2010-11, when Ruffin McNeill kicked off his tenure with back-to-back losing seasons, including a bowl-free finish in 2011, but has since rebounded to win eight or more games in each of the past two years. Last fall, ECU notched its first 10-win season since 1991 – and only the second in program history.
A little more good news. ECU is excited about the opportunity to enlist in the American Athletic Conference, which does certainly lack a certain cachet – not to mention a seat at the table – but stands as an upgrade on Conference USA, both today and tomorrow.
Now the bad news. The Pirates return just nine starters, the fewest of any team in the American – by a significant margin – and lose more than a third of last year's lettermen. ECU also brings back just more than half of last year's tackles; that ranks 113th in the Football Bowl Subdivision, last in the American.
The schedule is set for an upgrade: ECU takes on UCF and Cincinnati in league play, though the Pirates do avoid Houston, and adds South Carolina, Virginia Tech and North Carolina in September – the first two on the road.
So good news meets bad news; the positives meet the negatives. It's an old story, but with a twist: ECU tempers the good vibes with the bad in 2014, but the down notes – the inexperience and the increased level of competition – are only temporary.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
I'm picking ECU to go 8-4 in the regular season, losing two of three against Virginia Tech, UNC and N.C. State and another pair to Tulsa and Marshall. I don't believe any Conference USA teams other than Tulsa and the Thundering Herd are in ECU's class, basically. I even believe this team can do much, much more – the Pirates can very well make a run at double-digit wins, should they sew up the secondary in time for Virginia Tech and UNC in September.
In a nutshell: This was one of the finest teams in program history. It was certainly the best of McNeill's tenure: ECU was dynamic on offense, which was to be expected, but was vastly, hugely, impressively stronger on the defensive side of the ball – the Pirates' annual Achilles heel. The Pirates added defense to offense; wins followed. Among the wins were two against in-state bullies UNC and N.C. State, giving ECU some major bragging rights, and only a single score separated McNeill's bunch from a victory against Virginia Tech. The low notes came amid defensive lapses: ECU struggled getting stops against Tulane, losing in overtime, and never had a shot against Rakeem Cato and Marshall's thunderous passing game – the latter handing the Herd the divisional title while sending the Pirates out of Conference USA in disappointing fashion.
High point: Wins against UNC and N.C. State. The Pirates were the second-best team in the state.
Low point: The season-ending loss to Marshall.
Tidbit: ECU holds a 57-34 record against current members of the American, with the overwhelming majority of the matchups coming during Conference USA play – because the American is basically a newer version of Conference USA, as we're all aware. The only two conference foes with a winning record against the Pirates are South Florida (4-0) and Louisville (6-4); conversely, ECU is a combined 21-8 against UCF and Cincinnati.
Tidbit (attendance edition): ECU paced the non-major-conference level in attendance in each of the last two seasons. The 2012 team averaged 47,013 fans, well ahead of second-place Boise State. Last year's group averaged 43,985 fans, again a distance ahead of the Broncos.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Baseball players from North Carolina
1. Gaylord Perry
2. Luke Appling
3. Catfish Hunter
4. Enos Slaughter
5. Hoyt Wilhelm
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: The most important returning cog comes along the sideline: ECU will have coordinator Lincoln Riley for at least one more year, though I wouldn't bank on keeping the Mike Leach disciple on campus far into the future. The second-most important returning cog is Riley's pupil, senior quarterback Shane Carden (4,139 yards and 33 touchdowns), who steps from one league to another without missing a beat – and as in Conference USA, Carden will be one of the American's best at the position. He may very well be the best, actually, and a perfect triggerman for Riley's pass-first, quick-moving, bombs-away system. What's scary to consider is that Carden is just now ready to explode as he enters his final season: ECU has to be tremendously excited about what sort of production he can brings to the table. There's no question that ECU has the best quarterback situation in the American.
The receiver corps remains a strength despite a few losses – Lance Ray and Reese Wiggins, to name a pair. The Pirates shouldn't struggle locating production even without these lost seniors: ECU is deep out wide – ECU is always deep out wide – and perhaps more experienced, given the idea that complementary pieces such as Cam Worthy (19 receptions for 295 yards), Isaiah Jones (62 for 604), Bryce Williams (20 for 220) and DaQuan Barnes are ready to assume an even larger role in the offense. But the real story is the production found in senior Justin Hardy (114 for 1,284), a borderline All-American with the athletic gifts to simply dominate cornerbacks in this new conference. In terms of pitch and catch – the simple combination of quarterback and receiver – Carden and Hardy need to be considered among the nation's elite.
The backfield will need to retool without Vintavious Cooper, and not just on the ground: Cooper was electric as a runner last fall, but he was equally dependable and productive as a pass-catching valve out of the backfield. It'll be easy for ECU to share Cooper's role between senior Breon Allen (311 yards) and junior Chris Hairston (186 yards), last year's backups, but there should be some touches in the cards for redshirt freshmen Marquez Grayson, an extremely gifted runner who impressively combines size and speed. While the Pirates will start with a by-committee approach, don't be surprised if one back takes charge before the start of league play – and don't be surprised if Grayson makes some noise.
Defense: Given the fluctuation in personnel on this side of the ball, it's not a good thing that ECU takes on three regional powers during the season's opening month. Here's one thing to expect: ECU's going to struggle early. But the tide could turn by midseason – just in time, in my opinion – should the Pirates team a strong front four with some semblance of reliability along the back seven; the issue, unfortunately, is that the linebacker corps and secondary could year-long weaknesses. But don't question what the Pirates can do up front: Terrell Stanley (46 tackles, 7.0 sacks) is back at end, Crishon Rose should do a steady job in the transition outside from nose tackle and the interior combination of sophomore Demetri McGill and Terry Williams has me pretty optimistic, in fact. Add in N.C. State transfer K'Hadree Hooker, junior Johnathon White and sophomore Fred Presley and you have the makings of a top-four group in the American.
The benefit of having a solid front will trickle to the second level, where inside linebackers Zeek Bigger (77 tackles) and Brandon Williams (69 tackles) will benefit from the heft from end to end. This unit's issue is inexperience: Bigger is the lone returning starter among the four spots, though Williams and outside linebackers Maurice Falls and Montese Overton (50 tackles, 6.0 sacks) have earned extensive snaps in reserve roles. Let's be positive: Overton could be a difference-making edge rusher on the strong side, Bigger and Williams are steady, Falls can create pressure and the backups … well, depth isn't on the Pirates' side. But if the group stays healthy, perhaps the linebacker corps isn't as gaping a concern as at first blush.
The Pirates' biggest defensive concern is this secondary. There's very little to like: ECU is thin across the board, both in terms of experience and proven production, and it'll be a cross-your-fingers season barring an unforeseeable amount of growth from some unknown commodities. The top two cornerback spots will go to senior Detric Allen, a returning starter, and junior Josh Hawkins, who has played well enough in the past to earn this opportunity; the lead backup roles will fall to DaShaun Amos and DaShawn Benton. That's not bad – or it's not awful, I guess. The situation at safety is frightening: Lamar Ivey is the most tested option among a wholly raw and unreliable group, joining Nate Mays, Domonique Lennon and Terrell Richardson. Let's remember what lies ahead: South Carolina, Virginia Tech, UNC, Temple, Cincinnati, Tulane and UCF. As of today – and there's time for ECU to flip this script – the Pirates' secondary is one of the worst in the America.
Special teams: Ray's departure means ECU must find a new point man on kickoff returns, though Hardy should remain up to his old tricks on punts. While the hole at punter demands attention, it's more important that ECU find more consistency on field goals and a bigger leg on kickoffs; the latter would help the Pirates offset some lags and inconsistencies in coverage.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Offensive line: Last year's disappointing group returns just two starters, meaning we can look at this in one of two ways: one, that an average group can't really get any worse, or two, that an average group will become vastly less experienced and take a step back – and the second scenario is a major concern. Injuries aren't helping matters: ECU had three valuable linemen – two returning starters – slowed by dings and bruises during spring drills, a development that could delay the staff's desire for some much-needed cohesiveness. By the opener, however, the Pirates will have junior Ike Harris back at left tackle and junior C.J. Struyk at center; neither strike me as all-conference performers – Harris might come close – but both grant this line some experience.
There should be no question at right tackle, where junior Tre Roberson has started in the past, but I wonder whether ECU feels comfortable in handing left and right guard to redshirt freshman Larry Williams and sophomore J.T. Boyd, respectively. The talent is there; the experience is not. With a new backfield in place, new starters at guard and a center coming off an injury, it's only fair to wonder about the validity of ECU's inside running game.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
UCF: Surviving September will be key, perhaps taking one of those three games against marquee competition – the Gamecocks, Hokies and Tar Heels – but ECU's conference hopes come down to the finale against UCF. Even if the season starts on a low note, there's reason to think this team can salvage a commendable American debut once the calendar turns to league play. There's also reason to think ECU could be within a game of the Knights heading into the first week of December.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: ECU is going to be exciting. Is that a good thing? It could be: ECU is going to light up the scoreboard on one end – the offensive end, as this program tends to do – but seems very questionable nearly across the board defensively. This is a touch unfortunate, because we witnessed a season ago just how good this program can be when it teams an electric offense with a rock-solid defense; when working in tandem, the Pirates are a scary bunch. This year's group may have to settle for excitement, the back-and-forth style that can be electric, thrilling, exhilarating and – this most of all, perhaps – frustrating.
There's an imbalance. Don't worry about the offense: Carden's superb, the receiver corps is headlined by one of the nation's most productive targets, the backfield has options and the line, if a touch worrisome inside, has the potential to round into steady form by the start of conference play. It's the defense that should keep McNeill awake at night. What does ECU do well? I think the Pirates should stand up well at the point of attack against the American, thanks to sturdy front three, but the prognosis grows worse the farther we move from the line of scrimmage. As a whole, it's not a trustworthy group.
I worry that ECU digs itself into a hole in September. Let's remember that this team has issues to address; let's also remember that those three teams loom early, so ECU should be 1-3 before kicking off league play against SMU. Given the slightly tougher nature of the American – it's not wildly more difficult, but there's an uptick in competition – a sour performance in non-conference play should lead to a seven-win regular season. Having said that, let's consider the potential for more: ECU could find answers on defense early, stealing a game against a major-conference team, and then roll through much of the American with a balanced split of offense and defense. Yes, this team could win nine games – and they might expect to win nine games, which is something we can't ignore. I think it's more likely that the Pirates take seven during the regular season.
Dream season: ECU beats Virginia Tech and UNC before winning seven of eight games during American action.
Nightmare season: The Pirates start 1-3 and go 3-5 in league play.
Who's No. 53? This program's 100th win came by 11 points.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014