Team: East Carolina Pirates
2014 record: 8-5 (5-3 AAC)
Recap: I’m not going to sugarcoat this: East Carolina was a huge letdown in the second half of the 2014 season. The Pirates started off the year by raiding everything in sight and setting the world on fire, winning six of seven—including back-to-back upsets over Virginia Tech and North Carolina—and had buried treasure (a.k.a the AAC title) all but locked up by midseason.
But man, that Week 7 win over USF was oddly close. The suffocating UConn scare that followed wasn’t fun, either.
And then Temple happened, as five fumbles lost what should have been just another stepping stone to a second straight 10-win season and a potential New Year’s Six Bowl berth. ECU sputtered in Philly, losing 20-10—its lowest-scoring performance against a non-Power Five team since October of 2011—before falling three more times in its final five games, beating Tulane and Tulsa in the process.
It was supposed to be the year of the Pirate, and instead, it was the year of the Tiger/Bearcat/Knight, as the AAC finished with a three-way tie. Now, coach Ruffin McNeill must replace his three-year starting quarterback in Shane Carden, the all-time FBS receptions leader in Justin Hardy, his star-in-the-making offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley (who left for Oklahoma), and more than half his starters on a defense that really wasn’t very good in the first place.
Key player: Isaiah Jones, Jr., WR
From 2012-14, Justin Hardy accounted for 28.9 percent of the team’s total receptions, 30.7 percent of the receiving yards, and 31.9 percent of the receiving touchdowns. This was on an offense that averaged 563.3 pass attempts per year. How do you replace that? Here’s the answer: you don’t. Still, Jones is the most valuable asset remaining to the offense, which should remain pass friendly. He’ll undoubtedly be the No. 1 target, and could emerge as one of the AAC’s top receivers if he and new QB1 Kurt Benkhert can carry the torch.
Biggest strength: Offensive line
There are several questions that surround the ECU offense heading into fall practice, but offensive line is not one of them. This unit returns 83 total starts and two second-team All-AAC players (Ike Harris and J.T. Boyd), and will be monumental in the early stages of Benkert’s development as the new signal caller.
Biggest weakness: Secondary
Let’s put it this way: UConn—which ranked 112th in the nation in passer efficiency (109.2)—completed 63 percent of its passes for 313 yards and two scores against the East Carolina secondary, as the notoriously ineffective Chandler Whitmer posted a career-high 74.2 QBR before getting canned for good two weeks later. With some turnover and lack of experienced depth, the Pirates will likely continue to struggle against the pass, and competent opponents won’t shy away from throwing the ball down the field at will.
Most important game: at Navy (Sept. 19)
If the Pirates want to have a shot at making the postseason, they’re going to need to come up with a big win on the road. With Florida, BYU, and UCF on this list, the Midshipmen are probably the most winnable option (and that’s not a good thing).
Best-case scenario: 6-6 (5-3)
You just don’t replace your best two offensive players in school history—along with your starting running back, No. 3 receiver, and league-best OC—without regressing. Not at the mid-major level, anyway. A two-game drop off with a fourth straight bowl berth would be a huge success, especially with a pretty tough road schedule.
Worst-case scenario: 4-8 (3-5)
Like I said, growing pains are imminent, and though ECU still has a few proven playmakers at different spots on the field, it’s going to take at least one year for the youth movement to settle in. With so much star power gone, the playing field is pretty level with most competition in the AAC.
Early prediction: 5-7 (4-4)
Obviously I’m a little back and forth here, but in the end, it’s pretty clear that this is a year where ECU will take a step back and rebuild. The Pirates still have the pieces to be a middle-of-the-road AAC team, but lack what’s needed to contend with the projected heavyweights.