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1. Stage 3
Two years ago, I wasn't sure if Ruffin McNeill was going to make it at ECU. He inherited a program that had won at least seven games for four straight years under Skip Holtz, then went 11-14 in his first two years.
A late offensive charge in 2012 saved the Pirates' bowl eligibility despite iffy overall performance, but the offense had regressed from a 2010 peak, and the defense was cratering. The success of Steve Logan and Skip Holtz had set the bar pretty high in Greenville, and McNeill wasn't clearing.
As it turned out, the second stage of the McNeill era was beginning in 2012. ECU's 5-2 finish led to a 10-3 2013, and after losing quite a bit of experience, the Pirates finished 8-5 in 2014. And it was a rather unlucky 8-5: ECU was 2-5 in games decided by 10 or fewer points and suffered statistically unlikely losses to UCF and Florida.
Winning 18 games in two years solidifies your job status, but now the third stage begins. Three-year starting quarterback Shane Carden is gone, as is Justin Hardy, the all-time FBS receptions leader. Offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley left for Oklahoma. And a defense that regressed again must replace more than half its starters.
The state of the program is far from bleak, but there will be a blood transfusion, and ECU's continued success will depend on new names. That's an anxious proposition, but the depth is encouraging.
The Pirates have four three-star QBs to choose from. They lost two of their top three receiving targets, but they return five who caught at least 14 passes and brought in a three-star JUCO and two three-star freshmen. They lose three of last year's top five defensive linemen but boast plenty of big options. And defensive coordinator Rick Smith appears to have plenty of linebackers to swarm the run like last year.
There are question marks, but the biggest ones have potential answers.
2014 Schedule & Results
|Record: 8-5 | Adj. Record: 7-6 | Final F/+ Rk: 61|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|6-Sep||at South Carolina||38||23-33||L||20%||-19.4||25%|
|13-Sep||at Virginia Tech||33||28-21||W||56%||3.8||88%|
|11-Oct||at South Florida||123||28-17||W||53%||1.5||97%|
|Points Per Game||35.8||23||25.8||55|
2. Late improvement and some almosts
In a way, ECU was the anti-Houston. Houston played like a top-60 team through most of the first two-thirds of the season and regressed down the stretch, but a weakening schedule helped prop the Cougars up. ECU took advantage of weak opponents (and Virginia Tech) in moving to 6-1 but only played at about a top-75 level; then, as opponents improved, so did the Pirates.
- Average Percentile Performance (first 9 games): 42% (record: 6-3)
- Average Percentile Performance (last 4 games): 61% (record: 2-2)
ECU was lucky to start 6-3, then equally unlucky to finish 2-2.
The Pirates withstood a rough first half against UCF, forcing six field goal attempts to stay within 26-9 before surging ahead, 30-26. They then proceeded to allow a Hail Mary touchdown at the buzzer to lose. Then, against Florida in the Birmingham Bowl, they outgained the Gators by 197 yards and dominated field position but settled for three field goals and allowed a pick six to lose by eight points.
ECU played well enough to beat two top-60 teams, and the late play allowed them to get back up to 61st in the overall F/+ ratings.
The season was defined by easy wins and tough losses. The Win Expectancy figures above refer to the stats within the game; they say that with these stats -- efficiency and explosiveness stats, turnovers, field position, finishing drives, etc. -- you would have won this game X percent of the time. Of ECU's eight wins, only one had a win expectancy under 88 percent; meanwhile, the two late losses each had a win expectancy over 50 percent.
- Average Win Expectancy (8 wins): 93%
- Average Win Expectancy (5 losses): 40%
Part of this disparity was based on the schedule -- it wasn't difficult to safely handle SMU, USF, UConn, and Tulsa while looking only decent -- but ECU still hit a high level of play quite a few times.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||47.1%||18||Succ. Rt. +||107.8||41|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||28.0||29||Def. FP+||105.0||20|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.6||51||Redzone S&P+||118.7||22|
|Q1 Rk||56||1st Down Rk||30|
|Q2 Rk||40||2nd Down Rk||33|
|Q3 Rk||41||3rd Down Rk||23|
3. Probably not a lot of change
Ruffin McNeill was Mike Leach's defensive coordinator at Texas Tech, and the style rubbed off on him; when he took the ECU job, he installed spread apprentice Lincoln Riley, a 2006 Texas Tech grad, as his offensive coordinator.
The level varied from year to year, peaking at 17th in Off. S&P+ in 2010 and falling to 67th in 2012 before settling into the 50s. But the identity was clear: spread defenses out, make easy passes from side to side, then hope to spring a big run up the middle. ECU operated with pace and a proclivity for passing (including sacks, Shane Carden attempted 49.9 passes per game), and Justin Hardy caught more passes than any FBS player ever had.
Needing a reset for his own offense, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops hired Riley. But don't expect much change: McNeill handed the reins to Dave Nichol, his outside receivers coach for the last three seasons. Nichol's Leachian credentials stretch beyond ECU, too -- he was on Mike Stoops' Arizona staff from 2007-11, coaching receivers under former Leach assistants Sonny Dykes and Seth Littrell.
Everybody's got their own take on play-calling and philosophy, but expect the same efficiency passing.
Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Cody Keith (2013)||6'3, 210||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8181||7||11||57||0||0||63.6%||1||8.3%||3.9|
|Kurt Benkert||6'3, 225||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8364||8||10||58||0||1||80.0%||0||0.0%||5.8|
|Blake Kemp||6'1, 207||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||NR|
|John Jacobs||6'2, 220||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8083|
|Chris Hairston||RB||6'0, 205||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7985||79||528||2||6.7||5.8||49.4%||1||1|
|Anthony Scott||RB||5'9, 187||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8308||55||268||3||4.9||4.5||40.0%||1||0|
|Marquez Grayson||RB||6'1, 189||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8758||47||289||5||6.1||4.9||51.1%||1||0|
|Cory Hunter||RB||5'10, 200||Sr.||NR||NR||7||18||1||2.6||1.7||28.6%||0||0|
|Kurt Benkert||QB||6'3, 225||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8364||5||23||2||4.6||1.8||40.0%||1||1|
|Shawn Furlow||RB||5'10, 187||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8357|
4. Options in the backfield
ECU must replace both of its starters, but there are candidates aplenty. At quarterback, aggressive sophomore Kurt Benkert battled JUCO transfer Blake Kemp and hit on quite a few big plays; Benkert appears to have the lead, but Kemp still has a shot, as does 2013 backup Cody Keith, who has missed significant time to injury. Benkert appears to like throwing vertically, but that can constitute heroball in such an efficiency-based attack.
Perhaps ECU's best vertical threat, running back Breon Allen, is also gone. Of the 118 FBS running backs with at least 130 carries, Allen was one of only nine to combine at least a 44 percent Opportunity Rate (carries that gained at least five yards) with an average of at least 7.0 highlight yards per opportunity.
Last year's top backup, senior Chris Hairston, was more efficient and only slightly less explosive, but Hairston and sophomores Marquez Grayson and Anthony Scott fought to a draw this spring. Knowing that Hairston seems to have a high baseline, one has to figure the position is in good hands no matter who wins.
And whoever's running will benefit from a line that replaced three starters and returned only 39 career starts last fall but improved anyway. ECU ranked in the top 50 in Adj. Line Yards (despite sketchiness in short-yardage situations) and Adj. Sack Rate and returns six players with at least 10 games of starting experience, including all-conference performers Ike Harris (tackle) and J.T. Boyd (center).
We'll see how much Nichol chooses to run, but if the passing is at least a little efficient, the run game should be just fine.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|Isaiah Jones||IR-H||6'1, 197||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8161||115||83||852||72.2%||18.9%||68.7%||7.4||-130||7.4||97.2|
|Davon Grayson||WR-Z||6'2, 195||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7793||47||25||257||53.2%||7.7%||59.6%||5.5||-57||5.5||29.3|
|Jimmy Williams||WR-Z||5'11, 189||Jr.||NR||NR||34||22||254||64.7%||5.6%||61.8%||7.5||-12||7.5||29.0|
|Bryce Williams||IR-Y||6'6, 258||Sr.||NR||NR||34||18||237||52.9%||5.6%||79.4%||7.0||11||6.2||27.0|
|Trevon Brown||WR-X||6'2, 210||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7683||30||14||264||46.7%||4.9%||50.0%||8.8||83||8.7||30.1|
|Quay Johnson||IR-H||5'10, 177||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7759||10||9||57||90.0%||1.6%||80.0%||5.7||-46||5.2||6.5|
|Chris Hairston||RB||6'0, 205||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7985||9||6||31||66.7%||1.5%||55.6%||3.4||-41||3.4||3.5|
|Anthony Scott||RB||5'9, 187||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8308||7||5||22||71.4%||1.2%||71.4%||3.1||-37||3.2||2.5|
|Terrell Green||WR-X||6'4, 209||So.||NR||0.8100||7||1||8||14.3%||1.2%||28.6%||1.1||-12||0.7||0.9|
|Steve Baggett||IR-Y||6'5, 232||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7893||2||2||27||100.0%||0.3%||100.0%||13.5||4||NR||3.1|
|DaQuan Barnes||WR||6'1, 187||Jr.||NR||NR|
|Brandon Bishop||WR||5'11, 184||Jr.||NR||NR|
|Curtis Burston||WR||6'1, 220||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8154|
|Malik Gray||WR||6'1, 199||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7659|
|James Summers||WR||6'3, 210||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8248|
|Deondre Farrier||WR||6'1, 195||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8464|
|Justin Strozier||WR||6'1, 170||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8154|
5. Wanted: big plays
The benefit of throwing so much and operating at such a high pace is that you can lose an all-time receiver like Hardy, plus No. 3 target Cam Worthy and Breon Allen, and still return five guys who were targeted at least 30 times.
The efficiency targets are legion, and odds are good that inside receiver Isaiah Jones will step into Hardy's high-volume role with success. But of the six players with at least 20 catches last year, only three averaged better than 11.6 yards per catch, and Hardy and Worthy were two.
Despite so much passing, ECU had only seven passes of 40-plus yards (84th in FBS), and the two steadiest vertical threats are gone.
Bryce Williams and Trevon Brown both flashed big-play potential, albeit with iffy efficiency (combined catch rate: 50 percent), and Davon Grayson and DaQuan Barnes were able to strike deep this spring. (Actually, there were quite a few big plays this spring, but we'll see if that was because of the receivers or the defensive backs.) But one has to figure there is an opportunity for a newcomer to carve out a niche, be it a redshirt freshman like Curtis Burston, JUCO transfer James Summers, or a freshman like Justin Strozier or well-touted Deondre Farrier.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Taylor Hudson||C||21||2014 1st All-AAC|
|Ike Harris||LT||6'7, 309||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7444||26||2014 2nd All-AAC|
|J.T. Boyd||C||6'4, 298||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7626||11||2014 2nd All-AAC|
|Quincy McKinney||LG||6'4, 288||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8396||13|
|C.J. Struyk||C||6'2, 295||Sr.||NR||NR||12|
|Tre Robertson||RT||6'5, 305||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7719||11|
|Dontae Levingston||RT||6'4, 306||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8640||10|
|Stewart Hinson||LT||6'7, 295||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7994||0|
|Larry Williams||RG||6'4, 331||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8038||0|
|Brandon Smith||RG||6'8, 341||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8277||0|
|Christian Matau||C||6'3, 334||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7433||0|
|Messiah Rice||LT||6'5, 298||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8506|
|Garrett McGhin||RT||6'6, 310||RSFr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7744|
|Justin Sandifer||OL||6'5, 310||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8317|
|Darius Anderson||OL||6'3, 330||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8131|
|Dalton Montgomery||OL||6'6, 255||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7719|
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||38.3%||25||Succ. Rt. +||92.5||99|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||29.9||74||Off. FP+||95.1||116|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||3.9||26||Redzone S&P+||100.0||64|
|Q1 Rk||121||1st Down Rk||75|
|Q2 Rk||79||2nd Down Rk||80|
|Q3 Rk||95||3rd Down Rk||62|
6. Opponents didn't have to run
ECU's defense was one of the best mid-major units in the country when it came to stopping the run. The Pirates ranked 36th in Rushing S&P+; a strong set of big linemen occupied blockers from a 3-4 set, and linebackers flowed to the ball.
Seven players recorded at least 2.5 non-sack tackles for loss, and ECU proved solid in efficiency and explosiveness on the ground. If you needed to run out clock late in a game, you were going to struggle to do so, especially against a defense that seemed to improve as a half unfolded.
One problem: you didn't have to run the ball. The pass was always a happy option. Opponents threw 7 percent more than the national average on both standard and passing downs, and while the raw numbers weren't bad -- 57 percent completion rate, 14 INTs to 20 TDs, 120.2 passer rating -- adjusting for opponent makes things look pretty bad. Some of ECU's best performances in pass defenses came against wretched pass offenses (NC Central, Temple, Tulsa, Florida), and other iffy units like UConn's looked pretty good.
Whether ECU's pass defense was just bad or bottom-20 bad wasn't the point; it was weak enough to prevent the Pirates from playing to their strengths. And with turnover in the secondary, it isn't guaranteed to get better.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Terrell Stanley (2013)||DE||6'2, 268||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8035||13||31.0||4.0%||10.0||7.0||0||1||0||0|
|Fred Presley||DE||6'3, 271||Jr.||NR||NR||13||25.0||3.5%||8.0||6.0||0||0||0||0|
|Johnathon White||DE||6'4, 282||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7444||12||20.0||2.8%||4.5||0.5||1||1||1||0|
|K'Hadree Hooker||DE||6'1, 322||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8811||12||9.0||1.3%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Demetri McGill||NT||6'1, 314||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8395||10||3.5||0.5%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Mike Myers||DE||6'0, 290||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7583||4||2.0||0.3%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Kirk Donaldson||DE||6'3, 262||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7685|
|Demage Bailey||NT||6'5, 316||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7800|
|Shaun James||DE||6'4, 235||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8033|
|Darius Commissiong||NT||6'2, 305||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8322|
|Justin Brown||NT||6'3, 310||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8392|
|Kyron Speller||DE||6'1, 272||Fr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8033|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Zeek Bigger||MIKE||6'2, 216||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8490||13||103.0||14.4%||3.5||0.0||2||4||0||0|
|Montese Overton||SAM||6'3, 221||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8126||13||51.0||7.1%||11.5||3.0||0||4||0||0|
|Dayon Pratt||SAM||6'4, 218||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7400||11||26.5||3.7%||2.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Joe Allely||WILL||6'1, 230||So.||NR||NR||13||14.5||2.0%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Ray Tillman||BUCK||6'1, 206||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8175||8||6.0||0.8%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Joe Carter||MIKE||6'2, 222||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7533||12||6.0||0.8%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Pat Green||OLB||6'2, 217||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8080||13||5.5||0.8%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Cam White||MIKE||5'11, 213||Jr.||NR||NR||7||4.5||0.6%||0.0||0.0||0||1||1||0|
|Devaris Brunson||BUCK||6'1, 220||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8747||2||3.5||0.5%||0.0||0.0||0||0||1||0|
|Jordan Williams||BUCK||6'0, 230||So.||NR||NR||9||3.0||0.4%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Reece Speight||WILL||6'3, 234||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7886|
|Yiannis Bowden||SAM||6'5, 225||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8235|
|Darius Wright||ILB||6'0, 220||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8156|
|C.J. Maybin||OLB||6'4, 195||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8023|
7. They probably won't run this year either
Of last year's seven players with at least 2.5 non-sack TFLs, four are gone, including a wonderful play-maker in linebacker Brandon Williams.
But it's hard to worry, not with the return of players like linebacker Montese Overton, ends Fred Presley and Johnathon White, and MLB/defensive quarterback Zeek Bigger. ECU should be well-organized and fast, and if a tackle like K'Hadree Hooker, Demage Bailey, or JUCO transfer Darius Commissiong is able to fill the space-eater role, I don't expect change.
The front seven could also do the secondary a few more favors. Presley and Overton were two of only three Pirates with at least three sacks, and their return should assure that the pass rush at least holds steady. And if could improve if or when Terrell Stanley returns to speed. Stanley was a major force in 2013 but suffered major injuries in a February 2014 car accident and missed all of last season. He still hasn't returned to full-form, but he's got a few more months.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Domonique Lennon||FS||6'2, 210||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8136||12||48.0||6.7%||0||0||0||2||0||0|
|Josh Hawkins||CB||5'10, 185||Sr.||NR||NR||13||37.5||5.2%||1.5||0||5||11||1||0|
|DaShaun Amos||CB||6'1, 189||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7600||13||16.0||2.2%||2||1||0||0||0||0|
|Terrell Richardson||SS||6'0, 211||Jr.||NR||NR||12||15.0||2.1%||0.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|DaShawn Benton||SS||6'0, 191||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8181||11||12.5||1.7%||1||0||0||1||0||0|
|Rocco Scarfone||CB||5'11, 178||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7769||13||9.5||1.3%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Travon Simmons||FS||5'10, 185||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7500||9||6.0||0.8%||0||0||1||2||1||0|
|Cody Purdie||SS||5'11, 191||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7793||4||2.0||0.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Bobby Fulp||FS||6'4, 195||So.||NR||NR||12||2.0||0.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Travis Phillips||CB||5'11, 178||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7900|
|Drew Turnage||DB||6'0, 195||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7726|
|Blake Norwood||SS||6'0, 195||RSFr.||NR||NR|
|Corey Seargent||CB||6'0, 171||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8137|
|Nhyre Quinerly||DB||5'11, 180||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8310|
|Colby Gore||DB||5'11, 170||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7986|
8. Hawkins needs help
Josh Hawkins recorded five interceptions last year; the rest of the secondary had three. He also broke up 11 more passes (four more than any other DB) and recorded 1.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 behind fellow corner DaShaun Amos. He is a keeper.
He also needs help. ECU's pass defense had little to offer opponents who were competent through the air -- their pass rush, pass disruption, and big-play prevention were all lacking at times. The pass rush could improve with Terrell Stanley's return, but the loss of corner Detric Allen and safety Lamar Ivey means that ECU will be deciding between iffy backups with experience and untested newcomers.
True freshman Corey Seargent had a hell of a spring, actually threatening to unseat Hawkins, and little-used reserve Rocco Scarfone tested DaShaun Amos. Sophomore Travon Simmons seemed to have a nice spring as well. Another true freshman, Nhyre Quinerly, recorded an interception in the spring game.
In theory, if you've got experienced players (Hawkins, Lennon, Amos) and young guys with upside (Simmons, Seargent, Quinerly), you might be able to find a nice mix. But it's hard to trust that will happen.
|Worth Gregory||6'3, 209||Jr.||49||43.6||7||10||19||59.2%|
|Davis Plowman||5'10, 204||Jr.||3||55.0||0||0||0.0%|
|Davis Plowman||5'10, 204||Jr.||1-1||0-0||N/A||0-1||0.0%|
|Isaiah Jones||KR||6'1, 197||Jr.||24||19.9||0|
|Trevon Brown||KR||6'2, 210||So.||11||23.5||0|
|Trevon Brown||PR||6'2, 210||So.||2||8.5||0|
|Special Teams F/+||112|
|Field Goal Efficiency||107|
|Punt Return Efficiency||54|
|Kick Return Efficiency||128|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||60|
9. A bad kind of tie-breaker
ECU had an efficient offense and inefficient defense, so special teams served as a bit of a tie-breaker in terms of field position. That didn't work out well. The Pirates' coverage units and return games were lacking; Trevon Brown might be the answer for return troubles -- in limited opportunities, he had better averages than the primary return man at both kicks and punts -- and perhaps the new set of young DBs can help in returns.
Regardless, ECU did not thrive in close games, and special teams give you an opportunity to turn the tables in those games.
2015 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||2014 F/+ Rk|
|19-Nov||at Central Florida||60|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-5.6% (71)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||76 / 75|
|2014 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||-4 / -6.9|
|2014 TO Luck/Game||+1.1|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||11 (6, 5)|
|2014 Second-order wins (difference)||9.4 (-1.4)|
10. An odd schedule
ECU plays a pretty segregated schedule.
- Opponents who ranked in the F/+ top 30 last year: 0
- Opponents who ranked between 30th and 70th: 7 (three at home, four on the road)
- Opponents who ranked between 70th and 115th: 0
- Opponents who ranked worse than 115th: 5 (three at home, two on the road)
That makes it easy to zero in on a 7-5 or 8-4 record, depending on whether you think ECU is a top-80 team or a top-60 team.
It wouldn't take many ifs for ECU to become a stellar squad, however, one capable of winning any game in that 30th-to-70th batch. If a new quarterback emerges, if at least one new big-play threat takes hold in the receiving corps, and if the young blood in the secondary is able to raise the pass defense from bad to competent, then ECU is an AAC contender.
The Pirates aren't the safest bet for the conference crown, but they belong in the conversation.
Ruffin McNeill has survived and adapted in five years of leading his alma mater. This offseason's turnover has provided a new challenge, but he has recruited well enough that he can lose three important figures and still have a realistic shot. Bonesville is his home, and his odds of winning at least eight games for the fourth straight year are solid.