Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Projecting East Carolina: Big changes, schedule work against Pirates

East Carolina is coming off perhaps its best three-year run but with Coach Skip Holtz and 28 seniors gone, and with only eight starters returning, and with a very tough schedule, this is going to be a down year.

New coach Ruffin McNeill wants to play a more wide-open, pass-happy game and that will take time to put in place. While there is some good talent on offense and special teams that should keep them competitive, the defense looks shaky.

If ECU could get to six wins, McNeill should get coach of the year consideration in Conference USA. While five wins is doable, 4-8 is more likely not only because of the tough opponents but when the games are played. Two conference games and two away games against strong ACC teams is not how you’d like to start a new regime.

Here’s a game-by-game breakdown:

Sept. 5, Tulsa: A conference game to start… at least it’s at home. Tulsa is coming off a 5-7 season and will be better this year. If Holtz were still there, I’d give this one to ECU but you have to think there will be growing pains early in Greenville. Tulsa.

Sept. 11, Memphis: This could be the most important game of the year, especially if ECU loses to Tulsa. These teams are evenly matched even though Memphis was only 2-10 last year. Being at home against a slightly inferior opponent and having a game under their belts, East Carolina should come out on top.

Sept. 18, at Virginia Tech: The Hokies are favorites to win the ACC and if QB Tyrod Taylor improves a good bit, they could be in the national championship talk at the end of the year. While this is an away game for ECU, it wouldn’t matter where it is played. Virginia Tech in a blowout.

Oct. 2, at North Carolina: ECU would dearly love to win this game, and if emotion alone could win at game, this would be it. And who knows what Carolina’s state of mind will be after tough games against LSU and Georgia Tech. But the game is in Chapel Hill and the Tar Heels have too much talent. UNC.

Oct. 9, at Southern Miss: Southern Miss is a Conference USA East favorite. They have one of the better defenses around, with almost everybody back. This shouldn’t be close. Golden Eagles.

Oct. 16, N.C. State: Tom O’Brien beat Skip Holtz twice and he can beat a first-year coach. ECU will fight hard at home against a hated in-state rival. But… the Pack. That leaves the mid-year record at 1-5.

Oct. 23, Marshall: With four straight losses and possibly only one win on the season, ECU fans will be singing Waylon Jennings – “This is gettin’ funny but there ain’t nobody laughin’.” Marshall is coming off a winning season where they went to a bowl but they have a new coach too and this game is at East Carolina. ECU will be hungry and, especially at home, wanting to show they are better than their record. ECU.

Oct. 30, at UCF: Along with Southern Miss, the favorites in the Conference USA East. ECU will be sky high after beating Marshall but UCF has too much talent, especially All-America defensive end Bruce Miller and tailback Brynn Harvey. UCF wins to drop ECU to 2-6 overall and 1-4 in the conference.

Nov. 6, Navy: The Midshipmen have had winning seasons for seven years in a row and went 10-4 last year with a big win in a bowl game. Some people have ECU winning this game. But East Carolina’s defense, especially along the line and at linebacker, is suspect and Navy, the nation’s fifth best rushing team last year, have their QB, their running backs and both tackles back. I know it’s at home but Navy’s running game can wear you down. Navy.

Nov. 11, at UAB: This is a Thursday night national TV game. Why, I don’t know. UAB has a poor defense and they lost their starting QB from a year ago. I suppose they’ll be fired up to host a primetime game but they are also probably the worse team in Conference USA. Plus, by this point in the season, it won’t seem like McNeill is a new coach and he should have things heading in the right direction. ECU improves to 3-7.

Nov. 20, at Rice: Rice reminds me of a dish that isn’t so tasty but there’s a lot of it. In other words, the Owls were terrible on both sides of the ball last year but most everybody is back. You have to figure with more experience that they’ll be better and they’re playing at home. But ECU has learned to play tough teams on the road by this point. They should be able to beat a less-than-tough team this late in the season. Plus, they have more than a week to prepare. ECU moves to 4-7.

Nov. 26, SMU: This should be a real fight. A proud East Carolina team will be playing its finale at home with no bowl prospects and SMU will be playing for a bowl and possibly the Conference USA West. SMU is an up-and-coming team under June Jones. Advantage SMU.

That makes the season prediction 4-8.

If Emanuel Davis, an all-conference cornerback, can step up as an effective leader and Boston College transfer QB Dominique Davis is as strong and mobile as advertised, and Davis can find someone to throw to besides Dwayne Harris, and Harris can run back a few punts or kickoffs for touchdowns, the miracle of miracles could happen and the Pirates could finish 7-5 or 6-6.

With a new coach and the schedule the way it is, I’ll stick with 4-8.

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