For a few years now, Virginia Tech and East Carolina have made a habit of playing interesting games. The Hokies are always favored to win, because they’re an ACC team with more talent. But the Pirates have pulled off two upsets in a row – one in Blacksburg, one in Greenville – and are aiming for a third this Saturday.
The two schools will meet at Lane Stadium (12:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network), and if the Pirates win again, it won’t feel like as big an upset as a 12-point spread suggests.
Mid-major ECU has ripped off six wins in a row against the ACC, starting in 2013 and continuing through a win against NC State earlier this month
Last year, my colleague Matt Brown wrote this great story from Greenville, the site of ECU’s second straight win against Virginia Tech. He called the series more of a “mentorship” than a rivalry, as ECU reminds some of what VT was a few decades ago, before Frank Beamer began bringing conference titles and BCS bowls back to Appalachia. It’s worth revisiting now, as the Pirates and Hokies prepare to get it on for a 21st time (VT leads the series, 13-7).
Usually, when non-power teams beat a program of Virginia Tech’s stature, they publicly pitch the game as a budding rivalry. That’s good business. It benefits the smaller team to punch upward at the bigger team. It can lend, in the right light, a look of legitimacy.
But ECU hasn’t been worried about that.
"They're competitors. I've said this publicly: I would like our program to be like theirs,” then-ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said after last season’s win against Tech. “That's a program that wins, and I have that much respect for how Coach Beamer runs his program. And I've known Beamer for a long time. I've known him since the OVC days. I really respect him. He's a Hall of Famer, and I'm a peon."
ECU fired McNeill after last year’s 5-7 finish and replaced him with Scottie Montgomery. Beamer retired at Virginia Tech, and Justin Fuente arrived from Memphis to take his job.
The administrations are new, but it might’ve been hard for ECU to develop hatred for the Hokies anyway. From Matt’s story a year ago:
For Virginia Tech fans who are tired of the Pirates, a reprieve isn't coming any time soon. The two are scheduled to play every season but one until 2026.
Conference realignment has left a wake of scheduling quirks, and few teams have felt them as profoundly as East Carolina. After floating around FBS as an independent, the Pirates joined Conference USA for 1997. C-USA added Army in 1998 and TCU in 2001, but both left in 2005, along with Cincinnati, Louisville and others who split for the Big East. As the ACC-raided Big East disintegrated into what would become the American, ECU joined in 2014.
ECU fans struggle to think of out-of-state rivals, simply because they haven't played their current opponents enough to really hate anybody yet. ECU has only played UConn once ever. But ECU has played Virginia Tech 20 times, more than it's played all but four other teams, only one of which (Memphis) is in the AAC.
Realignment has tweaked Virginia Tech's schedule as well. Tech left the Big East for the evolving ACC in 2004. Virginia and Miami remain on the schedule, but West Virginia's place on VT's list of rivals might've been replaced by Georgia Tech (the WVU-VT Black Diamond Trophy will be at stake in three games by 2022, at least).
ECU has been wandering for a while. It’s found a good team it can beat, but the Pirates just haven’t had time to make a huge thing of this. Maybe that’ll change.
Virginia Tech has felt just fine about the Pirates, too. From Matt:
Joe Lanza, who runs the popular Virginia Tech site The Key Play, agrees: "I don't think our fans hate East Carolina fans. ECU isn't a team that I root against. I'll root for them to pull an upset if they're not playing Virginia Tech, just because their program is similar to Tech in a bunch of different ways."
Beamer shares that respect. In his press conference, Beamer said, "They're a quality program. I think we're close enough to them that they bring people here, we take people there, so that part is good."
Hokies fans, for their part, don’t seem to hate the Pirates that much. This guy seems to like both:
Cheaper than buying a new shirt! pic.twitter.com/Emg8ZxkIwQ— Matt Brown (@MattSBN) September 26, 2015
The football matchup is good, too
The numbers say Virginia Tech will prevail without much problem. S&P+ gives the Hokies an 88 percent win probability and projects a three-touchdown margin. The spread is two scores, smaller but still substantial.
But there are things in place that could make this fun. ECU quarterback Philip Nelson leads the country with a 79 percent completion rate, and Virginia Tech’s defense has been among the very best at preventing efficiency through the air. How Nelson reacts to a loud Lane Stadium and a potentially elite pass defense will be worth watching. If he can pull it off on the road and win against Tech for ECU, that’d be a moment, right?
Fuente has a chance to end Virginia Tech’s brief ECU futility, and Montgomery has a chance to beat a second ACC team in his first month as a college head coach. It’ll be a big win for someone, whether he winds up actively disliking the other program.