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Luke DeCock: If East Carolina can play up to potential, big prize awaits

Luke has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist in August 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
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  • ECU’s outlook

    The offense is a given. The Pirates will score points. Can they stop anyone from scoring? That’s always the question. Last year was a huge step in the right direction for East Carolina, and even with considerable turnover on defense, there’s never been a better time to pick up where the Pirates left off. The forecast: 9-3, in the mix for a CFP bowl but probably on the outside looking in.


Twenty-three years after arguably the greatest moment in East Carolina football history – the memorable Peach Bowl victory over N.C. State on Jan. 1, 1992 – the Pirates are in position to return.

There’s more on the line for East Carolina this season than earning respect from its new conference brethren in its first season in the American Athletic Conference. The new College Football Playoff offers a big bonus to the top team outside the five power conferences. And there’s no reason East Carolina can’t be the first to collect.

In setting up the new system, the CFP reserved a spot in the six-bowl setup for the highest-ranked team from the American, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt. It’s a sop to the little guys, the Boise States and Utahs and Northern Illinois(es?) that managed to crack the BCS lineup.

As far as East Carolina is concerned, there’s no reason the Pirates can’t be that team. If they were to make it, geographically speaking, the Peach Bowl would be the most logical fit – as well as the most historical.

They face the usual array of big-time opponents – at South Carolina, at Virginia Tech, North Carolina in Greenville – while stepping up to a new, stronger conference. But the offense should be as potent as ever with the 1-2 punch of quarterback Shane Carden, perhaps the best player in the state, and receiver Justin Hardy while the defense showed remarkable improvement over the course of last season, the first 10-win season since 1991.

Their stiffest competition for the spot may come from Marshall, which denied the Pirates the chance to play for the Conference USA title in their swansong season last fall with a 59-28 thumping. The Thundering Herd returns 14 starters from last year’s 10-4 team, has a stud quarterback in Rakeem Cato and doesn’t face a single opponent from a BCS conference. An undefeated season is not out of the question.

But undefeated may not be good enough. Because the rankings are entirely up to the new selection committee, a team from the American, clearly the biggest of the five smaller conferences, may bring the most muscle to the table. If East Carolina can hold its own against a much stiffer schedule that may be enough to sway the committee in a purple-and-gold direction.

It’s an odd situation: The long-awaited move to what used to be the Big East may actually hurt East Carolina’s record while improving the Pirates’ opportunities to impress the committee.

After years at the kids’ table, East Carolina now has an opportunity to eat with the adults. And after some uneven results in his first few years in Greenville, Ruffin McNeill appears to have the Pirates moving in the right direction – on both sides of the ball, finally.

As always, it will come down to how the Pirates fare against their major-conference neighbors, and it won’t be easy. It’s hard to find two tougher places to play in the southeast than Columbia and Blacksburg, and the Tar Heels will be out for revenge after losing in Chapel Hill a year ago.

But this is what East Carolina football is all about, has always been all about: Beating the big boys at their own game. The new CFP offers the Pirates their best chance yet at it. And the prize, New Year’s Eve in Atlanta, is the best one that’s ever been hanging out there for East Carolina.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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