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Sending out an SOS: Statement-less Schedule will Serve Pirates Well

Back, you know, before those seasons we don’t like to think about – the post-Ruff-pre-Houston years…the Pirates if known for nothing else, were a team that liked to take on the big boys from the big name conferences.

Aside from a September 12th road trip to South Carolina, the out of conference schedule for the Pirates is, well, not all that notable. CBS sports ranked ECU’s strength of schedule as 7th toughest in the AAC.

Normally, I would lament the scheduling, but am totally good with it right now, where the Pirates’ program is today.

I am in no way saying the schedule easy or even easier than it has been in the past. However, given that we “improved” last season in a big 4-win campaign, we need a “manageable” schedule, not a “marketable” one.

While AAC scheduling is out of the program’s control, and there are some tough games bunched together on the league slate, the OOC planning puts the Pirates in the best possible position to do well this season…at least heading into the league schedule.

Let’s take a swing at the schedule, game by game:

Game 1: Marshall at ECU, August 29th

There is a history and familiarity with the Marshall brand at ECU and the players should have high confidence playing a team from C-USA, a league the Pirates dominated in their closing seasons flying that banner. Even if no one on the roster have actually played the Thundering Herd.

This game should come down to the two offenses and frankly whether or not our star QB and his weapons can out-duel Marshall’s steadily productive offense. The Herd returns a veteran QB and top RB along with what may very well be the best offensive line in the C-USA. But, defensively, Marshall has been decimated and should be particularly weak against the run and quick passing game.

It could very well be a case where the Pirates’ defense under first year DC Blake Harrell make the ultimate difference in this game. They don’t have to be great…only better than Marshall.

Game 2: ECU at South Carolina, September 12th

For an ECU team that has really not had anything to get to excited about in recent seasons, if you are going to play at USC, this is a year to do it. Last year in retrospect would have been a good year to play them – they were not a good football team. But, they also are not likely to be that Gamecocks’ team the Pirates usually see when they play them.

The USC offense was horrible last season, finishing the year putting up only 24 points in their last three games combined. A freshman QB was figuring out the college game and the running game was getting stuffed. The inability of the offense to sustain possession and the defense being on the field forever didn’t help.

The Gamecocks will be better this season if for no other reason than the QB has that first year under his belt. But, for the O getting a notch better, the D may find itself no better than a year ago, as they need to rebuild the defensive line. The backend should be solid, but given ECU’s offensive line is a work in progress, it is a good matchup for the Pirates to play a team looking to replace its entire DL. This is a winnable road trip against a team with brand recognition.

Game 3: Norfolk State at ECU, September 19th

A middle of the pack MEAC team a year ago (5-7, 4-4) should not be able to stay with the Pirates and this is why they are on the schedule. No insult intended – and honestly, if you are a middling MEAC program looking to make a statement against a bigger school you would schedule ECU – but the Pirates should win this game going away.

The Spartans do return a pretty good quarterback with experience and will be a solid all-around team, but should not have the depth and athleticism to keep up with ECU.

Game 4: UCF at ECU, September 24th

The first three games give the Pirates a real chance to come into the league opener with some momentum. Unfortunately, that opener is against league big boy UCF and its an ESPN Thursday Night game as well. That sucks for the Pirates.

This is the game where Pirates fans should do a post-game recalculation because we will learn a ton about this team on this night. Compete with the Knights – win or lose – and the Pirates can be hopeful that they can compete with anyone on the schedule. Lose big and we will be doing the daily math to see if we can even hope to equal the 4-win mark.

Game 5: ECU at Georgia State, October 3rd

This is not necessarily going to be an easy win for ECU. Georgia State is a tough out and last season, they won 7 football games and played in a bowl game. They opened the season knocking off Tennessee (out of the SEC).

They were beaten soundly by Wyoming (38-17) in the Arizona Bowl but they will be prepared for ECU and ready to put the Pirates on upset alert. The Bulldogs will be breaking in a new QB which is a big plus for ECU.

Mostly, the concern here is that this game not get the attention of the Pirates players that it should. Coming off the UCF game, the players may find it difficult to get up for a non-league trip to Atlanta.

Game 6: ECU at USF, October 10th

This is a must have win for the Pirates. A league foe that is trying desperately to clean up the remnants of the Charlie Strong debacle. The new coach, former Clemson OC Jeff Scott has the CV to get it done, but it would be monumental for him to fix all the football problems in South Florida particularly without a spring and summer to prepare his guys on the field.

There are some athletes and a couple of transfer QBs that might be able to ignite what will be an attacking offense. And the defense has a lot of talent back from a squad that did get pressure on QBs a year ago. And, one of their 4 wins a year ago was a lopsided win over ECU in Dowdy-Ficklen.

The Pirates can win this game and will have to if the team hopes to improve on 2019, but based on last year, a bad USF team might still have the edge on an improving Pirates team.

Game 7: Navy at ECU, October 17th

The good news for ECU is that 2019 Navy QB Malcolm Perry is gone. Bad news for ECU is that Navy owns our program. ECU not only loses to Navy, they lose big to Navy…almost every time.

That said, when Navy brings in a new QB, it is the opportune time to beat them.

This would be a huge, shocking, and season-changing win if the Pirates can figure out some way to control the Navy OL and stifle the running game. More disappointing than giving up the huge yardage and points to Navy is the fact that our offense doesn’t seem to be able to beat the Middies undersized, less mobile and athletic defense. You would think that ECU would at least be able to score points on most of their possessions.

But, if you can’t force Navy to even punt the ball once, you have to be perfect on offense…something we are not yet able to do.

Game 8: ECU at Tulsa, October 30th

Last season, the Tulsa season-ending loss was brutal and it really wiped away all the hopes and momentum of playing both Cincy and SMU to the bitter end in big, exciting games. It was over before the end of the third quarter despite Holton Ahlers and C.J. Johnson aerial show in Dowdy-Ficklen.

In many ways, the Hurricanes and Pirates have a similar challenge for 2020. In the trenches. The skill positions are loaded at Tulsa, but if they can’t get a seem or a few seconds to deliver the ball, then the talent doesn’t matter that much. Tulsa will be a better team than they were a year ago, but ECU should be a much better match up this time around. With a bye week to prepare, the Pirates will have a chance in this game.

Game 9: Tulane at ECU, November 7th

The Green Wave had a stellar offense in 2019…they were really good and a year ago the offense carried them to a 5-1 hot start.

However, Tulane’s defense was that bad and carried them to a 2-5 record in the back-half of the season. This is a good year for the Pirates to catch a cross-division home game against Tulane as the they will have to rebuild that offense which was decimated by graduation.

Game 10: ECU at Cincinnati, November 12th

Whatever the Pirates do between games 1-9 it better include winning a good portion of those games. The final quarter of the season – the stretch run – is brutal for the team as a trip to Cincy highlights a stretch where they have to play the Bearcats, Temple and SMU to finish the regular season. That is tall, tall task.

A year ago, the Pirates were the better team against Cincy, losing a heart-breaker 46-43 to the visitors. But this time around, Cincy will be a tougher challenge with a bucket of advantages. ECU goes on the road for a short-week game (Thursday-nighter on ESPN) giving them less time to prepare. They will face a Bearcats’ defense that will be among the nation’s best. It will likely be a cold weather game. The challenge is a big one for ECU.

Game 11: ECU at Temple, November 21st

I hate Temple. I can remember a time when ECU owned the Owls. It was a guaranteed win most of the time. So what happens, I move to Pennsylvania and they start beating us each time out.

ECU has lost 6-straight to the Owls and the games have not been close. It is really inexplicable and to me, it goes to confidence or lack thereof for some reason. They own us.

On the downside, the Owls have a seasoned, veteran QB in Anthony Russo. He will move the offense all over our D. However, the Owls defense will not be as strong as others in the past so hopefully ECU can outscore the Owls this time around.

It won’t be easy and is probably not a likely W.

Game 12: SMU at ECU, November 28th

On paper, this has potential to be a repeat game of last year’s thrilling 59-51 SMU win. It was an entertaining game where both teams were rolling up and down the field and if not for an inopportune pick 6, the Pirates may have had the ball last for the win.

It ultimately was a loss, one of many for the Pirates, but both teams will look similar heading into the final regular-season game of 2020-21 season.

It will come down to which team’s defense has improved enough to get a couple of meaningful stops or force a field goal while denying a touchdown.

SUMMARY

I don’t really want to pick wins and losses. That said, the Pirates have a chance to inch forward another step this season. Depending on the development of the offensive line and potential steps backwards by some of the their opponents, the Pirates could win 5-7 games this season. A major step forward on defense, and maybe they could win 8, which would be stellar in my book. But the potential is there also to struggle to win 3-5 games. This is a huge season for growth and we need to maximize it if we expect to be a real contender by year 5 in the Houston program.

The X factor this year, however, will be the fact hat nobody has had the chance to even know what they really have going into whatever they call the 2020-21 season, so maybe ECU pulls off some surprises.

Would love to hear your thoughts…how are these Pirates going to do?

Cheers and Go Pirates!

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