In the lead-up to the upcoming college football season, Sports Unbiassed is taking a look at the top 20 teams with a chance to win the Access Bowl bid in 2015. You can find the full list of the Top 20, links to other team previews, and read more about the methodology behind the rankings here.
East Carolina Pirates
2014 Record: 8-5 (5-3 in AAC)
Head Coach: Ruffin McNeill (.585)
Returning Starters: 12/24 (6 OFF/5 DEF/1 SP)
5-Year Recruiting Ranking Composite: 75th
FIVE POSSIBLE STATEMENT GAMES
- Sept. 12 @ Florida
- Sept. 26 v. Virginia Tech
- Oct. 10 @ BYU
- Nov. 19 @ UCF
- Nov. 26 v. Cincinnati
WHAT YOU REMEMBER/SHOULD REMEMBER ABOUT THE PIRATES
East Carolina was rolling through the first half of the 2014 season, starting the year 6-1 with wins over Virginia Tech and North Carolina and a closer-than-it-looked loss to South Carolina. As a result, the Pirates were the only Group of Five team ranked in the inaugural CFP weekly ranking on October 28. Then this happened against a perfectly mediocre Temple team:
The Pirates essentially torpedoed their chances at an Access Bowl bid with that loss at Temple, following it up by dropping a heartbreaker to Cincinnati to finish fourth in its new conference. It was in character for ECU, though, after they failed to reach the C-USA Championship Game in their last five years before making the lateral move to the AAC. East Carolina has always shown a propensity for playing to the level of their competition, which allowed them to defeat two Power Five opponents but proved dangerous when aiming for consistent excellence.
THE KEY REASON FOR HOPE FOR THE PIRATES IN 2015
East Carolina has the potential once again to make some major statements against Power Five competition. By the end of September, we will know where they stand after a road trip to Gainesville to take on the Gators and a visit from Virginia Tech on the last weekend of the month. Should the Pirates win just one of those two showdowns, they will set themselves up (just like last year) as an AAC and Access Bowl favorite. ECU also has the advantage of playing against BYU in Provo; with the Cougars trying to find their own independent route into the New Year’s Six party and possibly the College Football Playoff itself, this offers another statement opportunity for the Pirates in a tough road environment.
They also have a favorable path to winning the AAC title. The Pirates avoid West Division front-runners Memphis and Houston in the regular season, and the pivotal season finale against Cincinnati will be played in Greenville. The addition of a new championship game to the AAC will also afford whichever team walks away with the conference crown another data point to influence the CFP selection committee, eliminating the advantage held by the Mountain West, MAC, and Conference USA.
WHAT COULD COST THE PIRATES THE ACCESS BOWL SLOT
The biggest thing standing in East Carolina’s path is not its schedule or a dearth of statement opportunities. Rather it is the loss of a large chunk of last year’s team, both on offense and on defense. The nation’s third-ranked passing attack in 2014 suffers an especially large blow with the loss of its catalyst, quarterback Shane Carden, and top target Justin Hardy. Whoever steps into Carden’s role will also take over without the balance provided by departed tailback Breon Harris. Oh yeah… and they lose their offensive architect as well, with coordinator Lincoln Riley hired away by Oklahoma. On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Rick Smith has to replace six starters to a unit that was in the top 40 in yards allowed and conceded fewer than 26 points per game last year. Powerhouses have the luxury of reloading; East Carolina is no powerhouse, though, and rebuilding can often yield setbacks for college football middleweights.
The schedule, while it includes two Power Five opponents, also leaves something to be desired relative to other Access Bowl contenders. Florida will be breaking in a new head coach, while Virginia Tech is hardly the juggernaut that dominated the ACC in the late 1990s and early part of the 21st century and could be looking for its own new head coach soon enough if another year of Beamer Ball yields inconclusive results. A loss to either isn’t deadly to the Pirates’ hopes, but it would take a lot of the control of their fate out of ECU’s own hands. As it is, East Carolina needs both to be contenders rather than cellar-dwellers in the SEC East and ACC Coastal respectively to bolster its case.
OFFERING A POTENTIAL OUTCOME FOR 2015
Unfortunately for Ruffin McNeill and company, East Carolina looks to be trending flat in 2015. The Pirates should be able to maintain the same level of performance that they managed last season, but given the fact that they’re in the tougher of the two new AAC divisions it will be a tough task for ECU to vault past both UCF and Cincinnati to claim a spot in the inaugural league championship game.
Another hot start should be in the cards for East Carolina in 2014, beginning with what should be an easy victory over FCS Towson in the season opener. That game should get the new starters up to speed enough to pull off a close upset against a Florida team that will still be sorting out the pieces in the aftermath of the Will Muschamp era. The following road trip to Annapolis to face Navy provides a challenge that affords the chance for a strong start in conference play — as long as the Pirates aren’t looking ahead to the following weekend when Virginia Tech visits Greenville. I foresee ECU winning one of their two Power Five matchups; Florida provides the most likely opportunity given the turnover in Gainesville, but if the Gators prevail look for McNeill’s crew to redouble their efforts against the Hokies. October begins with a western road trip on back-to-back weekends, with a likely win at SMU followed by a likely defeat at BYU putting the Pirates at 4-2 by the midway point of the year. ECU should be 8-2 heading into the home stretch, with Tulsa, Temple, UConn, and USF unlikely to give the Pirates any significant scare on the scoreboard.
The year will come down to games against UCF and Cincinnati, and the combination of putting so much focus on September and the loss of so much depth will probably see ECU enter bowl season on a two-game losing streak. The break before the postseason will allow McNeill’s team to recover and recharge for their bowl opponent, ending the year on a high note after missing out on a division title.
PREDICTED RECORD: 9-4 (6-2 in AAC)