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Five Teams Whose Bandwagons I am Firmly Aboard for 2008: #4 East Carolina

...or If the kids over at the Boneyard Banter thought my Virginia Tech vs East Carolina preview was showing the Pirates that mad respek they apparently crave, then wait 'til they see this.

As mentioned previously in the Va. Tech/ECU preview, I'm pretty high on the ECU Pirates after a fairly solid 8-5 season ended with an upset win over mid-major darlings Boise State, and see all the right tools for, at the very least, conference championship level success on their roster and schedule.

Starting with the offense, the Pirates return 7 starters to a unit that was pretty up and down over the course of the season but still wound up averaging 31 points a game, topping 30 seven times, 40 twice, and 50 twice. Save for left guard, the entire o-line returns, though that's a bit deceptive as Cory Dowless, the projected starter at LG, redshirted last year after starting 8 games as a true freshman in '06, earning All-Conference Freshman Team honors for his efforts. They will have to find a replacement at RB with Chris Johnson, a 1000 yard rusher last season, having graduated, and that's a pretty tall task for a group that didn't put up big numbers last year. Dominique Lindsay is the heir apparent, and he gained only 205 yards on 66 carries (3.1 ypc=ouch), and was third in rushing behind Johnson and QB Patrick Pinkney, who had a slightly better 3.9 ypc average (gaining 306 yards on 79 carries). Pinkney returns as a dual threat QB and the likely starter after throwing for 1358 yards with 11 TDs to only 4 INTs, and he could also split time with Rob Kass, a JR who had 7 starts last year to Pinkney's 5. Kass is more of a pocket passer type who's 9-4 TD/INT ratio allowed Pinkney to pass him, but he's still an option. At receiver, leading pass catcher Lamar Bryant returns after grabbing 48 for 704 with 6 TDs, and Dwayne HArris also returns after a solid true freshman season that saw him grab 26 catches for 246 yds as a receiver and finish the season with 782 all purpose yards thanks to some big contributions on special teams. I'm taking Phil Steele's word and looking for "more production out of Harris so this unit is in better shape than 2007's and one of CUSA's best!"

08/30 Virginia Tech (Charlotte)
09/06 West Virginia
09/13 @ Tulane
09/20 @ NC State
09/27 Houston
10/11 @ Virginia
10/18 Memphis
11/02 @ UCF
11/08 Marshall
11/15 @ Southern Miss
11/22 @ UAB
11/28 UTEP
On the defensive side of the ball, things can only look up for the Pirates after a season in which they routinely found themselves in a position where the offense had to outshoot the opponent to win, but were +17 in turnover margin and return 9 starters with a lot of senior leadership. The entire defensive line returns intact, but they will need to find replacements at outside linebacker and CB. At OLB, Melvin Patterson has game experience at FS, starting one and playing in reserve as a redshirt freshman last year, while at CB Travis Simmons had four starts as a true freshman last season. Both should be able to fill in immediately and help bolster a defense that's ripe for a breakout.

Looking at the schedule, ECU has it pretty well made in conference play, getting three of the weakest four teams in the conference on the road (Tulane, Southern Miss, and UAB), while UCF, the other road conference opponent, is due for a big step back without RB Kevin Smith or QB Kyle Israel. They also have an opportunity to take a few BCS scalps this year, with trips to Virginia and NC State, two ACC squads that are due for some floundering, and even a better than average chance at Virginia Tech in Charlotte after pushing the Hokies for 60 minutes last year. Their home conference slate is imminently winnable, with Houston (whom they bested 37-35 on the road last year), a team that will be rebuilding with a new head coach, Memphis, a bottom-tier bowl team that ECU bested on the road 56-40 last year, Marshall, whom ECU inexplicably lost to 7-26 but who have to come to Greenville this year, and UTEP, a team that ECU needed OT to beat 45-42 last season in El Paso finishing the schedule. It's not unrealistic to think that the Pirates can manage to run their conference schedule, though there is certainly a head scratching loss in their somewhere (possibly Memphis, who should be improved from last year, or UTEP, ditto), and even get a few BCS wins to catapult them into the rankings at the end of the season. Winning the CUSA Championship is within reach, and with Tulsa, a team most suspect will win the western division and the conference as a whole, coming off of a similarly poor showing on defense but without the returning players (or QB) that ECU has, I like the Pirates to take it all for themselves and make some big noise this year.

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#5: Wake Forest