Week 13 - November 28, 2015 - Time: TBA - Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium
Who Are They?
East Carolina might be one of the quietest and most consistent college football programs in the country, reaching eight bowl games in the last nine years. Last season, the Pirates were 8-5 and 5-3 in the American Athletic Conference behind the talented, and experienced arm, of Shane Carden who has since graduated. Wide receiver Justin Hardy is also gone, as is offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. East Carolina was a strong team last season playing in close losses to South Carolina (33-23), UCF (32-30), Cincinnati (54-46) and Florida (28-20). On the flipside, the Pirates did beat Virginia Tech, who was riding high after beating Ohio State the previous week, and put up 70 on North Carolina.
The team this year has a new look. With Carden, Hardy and Riley gone, there is no doubt that the Pirates will have a new look offensively, but East Carolina is still a very talented team that you could argue should appear higher on this list. Sophomore Kurt Benkert is supposed to take over at quarterback and the receivers are deep. Isaiah Jones is back at receiver after catching 81 balls last season, finishing second on the team. Among the other returning receivers, freshman Deondre Farrier could be a major factor this season. The running back depth is also pretty solid after the top three rushers from a year ago averaged over 6.1 yards per carry. Chris Hairston, the top guy returning, averaged 6.7.
Defensively, the Pirates are led by linebacker Zeek Bigger, who led the team with 140 tackles a year ago. Senior Montese Overton is another highly talented linebacker with other players on the depth chart figuring to factor in at the backer position. The defensive line is rebuilding a bit, but the secondary is experienced. The Pirates defense was 11th in the nation stopping the run, allowing just 111.8 rushing yards per game.
Why We Should Worry...
East Carolina is one of those programs that is always dangerous. They seem to know how to play in big games and they always seem to have a wealth of talent at their disposal. That alone makes them a worrisome opponent, but for the Bearcats the bigger factor this season may be the way the schedule lays out. East Carolina hosts Cincinnati in the final game of the regular season. Presumably, Cincinnati will be playing for something at that point and they will have one final game where they have to travel to a talented opponent's house.
I feel I have seen too many of these scenarios play out to feel great about the prospect. My own visions aside, there is something to be said about East Carolina's inexperience having nearly the entire season to settle in before Cincinnati meets them. East Carolina is a program that tends to be firing on all cylinders by season's end. That's concerning from a matchup standpoint.
And Why We Shouldn't...
Just as East Carolina will have likely hit their stride by the later parts of the season, Cincinnati will have too. The Cincinnati offense should be purring with their weapons at wide receiver and the depth at running back. The defense will have either settled in and settled down, or they will have completely fallen apart. My money's on "settled in", for the record.
The Cincinnati offense should be balanced enough to stay one step ahead of the Pirates and East Carolina's offense shouldn't be quite as high-powered as they were last season, which obviously benefits the Bearcats. At least it isn't likely they will match the offensive firepower.
East Carolina has a lot of yardage and points to replace this season, but they always seem to have the talent there and waiting. Despite East Carolina's home-field advantage, Cincinnati is the more experienced and talented team overall. I personally think this game will be a very tough game for the Bearcats regardless of how the Pirates perform throughout the season. Even if the Pirates struggle out of the gate this season, I expect a nail-biter from a East Carolina program that always seems to play tough.