So, USA Today says that ECU is a Top-50 team going into this season. The article was clearly researched and well-balanced in my opinion. Nothing new but it did distill the Pirates situation down to what would be a good singles ad:
Sexy, high-octane, big-scoring offense seeking dependable, no frills, defensive unit. Need not be a 10 to reply.
Top-50 is a fair place to start us, though I would like to have seen the Pirates, with so many returning starters and a respectable – at least on paper – record last season be more like a Top-40 team if we are going to be speculating. The thing is, with 9 starters back on offense, it is more than reasonable to think that the Pirates could easily average better than 35 points a game regardless of who they are playing. And, the thing is, that with 9 starters back on defense, it should be safe to say that the Pirates can at least knock a TD off the average given up and bring that number down to 29 points against. That math should add up to more wins.
But, then there are a few realities that many of us don’t like to talk about at our purple Kool-aid parties.
First, while indeed the 9 starters coming back on offense have a proven track record of effectiveness, the same cannot be said about the defensive starters coming back. Just because you have been there for three years only means you were the best of what we have, not the best of what is out there. Not saying that this is true, but just putting that out there. If ever coaching could make a drastic difference, I am hoping this is the year because watching just a few moments of the Navy or North Carolina games and it is obvious our defense was whack last season.
Second, you just cannot get around the schedule last year. Other than maybe Marshall (a poor man’s version of our own team), we didn’t have a quality win last season. As the USA Today article aptly points out, we went 0-5 against bowl teams. Which brings into clear focus that this year’s schedule, no matter how many of those “new CUSA teams” are on the schedule, we will be hard pressed to face a worse line-up than last season. So while we are year older and experienced, are we any better than we were last year? Some would call our team paper tigers a year ago.
Finally, there is the pressure quotient. ECU historically has struggled to live up to the hype. Save the 1991 season, the teams that have come into the season experienced and bathed in preseason predictions of greatness, have found a way to fall flat on their faces. Look at 1995 loss to Cincinnati, the 1999 loss to UAB, the 2000 losses to Memphis and UAB, 2008 loss to N.C. State, and the 2009 loss to SMU. All over the ECU history are laid eggs in seasons that otherwise would have been gangbusters. The 1999 season, had we not choked to the likes of Memphis and UAB would have resulted in a perfect regular season (11-0) and a different bowl game perhaps. The point is, when the Pirates are good and know it, they tend to find a way to succumb to the pressure. So the Pirates wiring needs to be put in check prior to the opener if we are to experience something “special” this campaign.
Now, having said all of that, there is a good reason for the hype, particularly on offense. I think that the press is picking up on the fact that history has shown that in college football, veteran offense lines that have experience in more positions than not, tend to yield success on offense. And, when you couple that with an offense that historical rolls up points, it is a pretty safe guess that ECU’s offense – save a key injury – should be as reliable as the morning sunrise in regards to carving up defenses. An experienced play-maker at quarterback, an experienced 1,000 yard rusher in the backfield. One of the nation’s most dynamic and reliable wide receivers in the line up and a host of play-making pass catchers behind him. A very good punter and a rising, reliable field goal kicker. These things point to reliability, predictability, and fewer youthful mistakes. With that in place, it is reasonable to expect the offense to maybe hit the 40 points per game milestone and not sound like an idiot.
On defense, as bad as it has been (for all the aforementioned chatter), there is reason to be optimistic moreso than in the past few years. Experience does matter and for the most part, the D is experienced, save at the corner position. No doubt there are good athletes in the defensive lineup. Of all the reasons that the defense could be much improved, the biggest is coaching. Brian Mitchell was a good, good man and a guy who connected with players, but for the last three seasons, it was evident that there were X and O issues on the defense. Adjustments were non-existent. When things DID seem to work there wasn’t enough of it (see the NC game where when we blitzed Renner was an average QB so we stopped blitzing). Particularly in pass coverage where the linebackers looked lost on the field and the secondary never seemed to be anywhere near the football (pause a replay of a game last year and you will see receivers so wide open, there is no Pirate in the still frame). So, high hopes are pinned on Coach Smith to get the X and O straight. If nothing else…if guys clearly understand what to do and where to be, we will be a monumentally improved defense and all that experience will truly propel the unit up. The other good news is that with the ECU offense, the defense doesn’t have to be stellar. A decent ECU defense should yield an 8-10 win season. A stellar ECU defense and we would truly be believing the hype and talking “BCS buster.”
Another factor that should play into a successful season is special teams. This year, we appear to be very competent in the phase of the game that can provide you margin for error on O and D. Reliability in a field goal kicker can make the difference between a 3 point loss and a victory…we appear ready for this aspect of the game. Our punting was pretty darn good last season and will again be solid if not stellar…an under-appreciated facet of the game. Our punt return unit is also a very good unit. Kickoff return needs some work, but now that Coach Kirk Doll is settled in and has a year of work with the kids, I expect the coverage units to be the best we have seen under Coach Ruff’s regime.
And, yes, there is that schedule. I am not convinced that it is an easier schedule than last year, but for sure, it is a manageable schedule. Here is my look at the slate based on previous years and sort of the Pirate culture:
Old Dominion (home)
This one will be tighter than expected simply because of the pressure for the Pirates to live up to hype and to win one they should. The ODU offense will let us know right away what we have on Defense. Pirates pull away at the end.
Florida Atlantic (home)
Despite the fact that FAU hung with Navy (a team that walked the dog on us), they were a young and not very good team last year. They will be better and this will be a look ahead game with Virginia Tech looming, the Pirates – providing they take care of ODU in week 1 – should win this one handily…like Memphis games of the past.
Virginia Tech (home)
Yes, Virginia Tech was a 7-6 team a year ago, atypical for the Hokies but I am not sure why there is so much optimism here. The Hokies return a veteran QB and a their defensive line and secondary are all veterans with several All-ACC caliber players. When Virginia Tech has a veteran defense, they are hard to beat. Even at home, it would be a huge task to pull the upset – and it would be an upset. The 2008 season showed that the Pirates can be game, but I don’t expect it to happen this time.
North Carolina (away)
While the Tarheels should probably be banned from football, they are still fielding a team and one that should be considerably less talented, particularly on offense. The big factor really is the pressure quotient on our team who – whether we like the truth or not – seem to have a mental roadblock in regards to performance level against North Carolina. Playing on the road doesn’t help. I think this is a game that we will be hard-pressed to win if we are not a “special team” this year even though we should have as much or more talent/experience than them.
Middle Tennessee (away)
This could be a tough game. They are a similar team to ECU in that they return a ton of starters from an 8-4 team. They should have a strong offense with a senior QB and returning OL in tact. While they will be a good team, this is a game ECU should win based on greater depth, but it won’t be a gimme, particularly on the road.
This is a program in shambles and not likely to improve much on its 2-win season a year ago. Weaknesses all over the lineup. Fortunately this is an away game (albeit Louisiana is never easy for the Pirates) and we should not need our crowd to win this game. Of course, this is also the type of game that has ruined Pirate seasons in the past. I think we win this one but maybe not as handily as we could.
Southern Miss (home)
I know, I know…they were HORRIBLE a year ago…worst Southern Miss team I have ever seen or read about. The coaching change alone should make them a better team. The biggest thing with this team is their pride…which they have always had in boatloads. because of this, I expect a dog fight with this team even if we out gun them. Never take USM for granted. They deserve the respect that a team who owns us deserves. I think we win this in a very, very difficult home outing.
Florida International (away)
This is another game despite being on the road that the Pirates should win even on a down day. I don’t expect FIU to be in this game at all. Unless the Pirates get caught looking past this team to Tulsa, we should be too much for them on both sides of the ball (even at last year’s level of play defensively).
Biggest, toughest league game on the slate, without a close second. Tulsa will be good. However, history has shown Tulsa to be a team that struggles on long road trips so them coming to us is a big advantage. For that reason, I think our team edges Tulsa, but not by much. This should be a preview of the C-USA championship game, IMO.
Glad we are not playing them in Alabama (we all know the Alabama curse) but really, it shouldn’t matter. They did play us close last year, but they overachieved in that game and are not a good team despite their quarterback. We should have no trouble handling them at home, but, again, this is the type of game that sinks us sometimes. At home, I like our chances for a comfortable win.
N.C. State (away)
Of the OOC brand-name games, I like this one the best. We generally always play N.C. State tough with no pressure deficit. Our kids get up for them and tend to play well if not better than usual. This State team is going to be in rebuild mode (though it would be nicer if this was earlier in the season). I think that us being on the road pulls us back to them somewhat, but we should win this game even in unfriendly confines, IMO. We should be the better team.
This one will be for all the beans (CUSA Title Game appearance). I think this game comes down to which team has a legitimate defense. The Marshall offense is legit…that QB is phenomenal and they move the ball and score. It will be a shootout again. I suspect that Marshall’s defense is maturing like ours did, meaning it is going to take three years to solidify, which puts us a year ahead of them. For this reason, I think we win on the road in probably another OT game or a last-team-with-the-ball fashion. With it all on the line, I like ECU’s maturity to win it.
Not sure how the numbers add up on this…I guess my thought is 10-2, but I don’t believe we can win the ones we should…history has proven that, so I would put us at 8-4 or 9-5 if we muster a defense (could also see us boneheading two games and being 7-5). We will know early on if our defense has improved. The ODU game should make that crystal clear. We handle their offense and we have a chance to be good defensively which gives us a chance to have a special season.
Am I out of my head? Love to hear what you all think.