For a guy facing modest expectations for his first season as coach, Ruffin McNeill will have two must-win games right from the word hike.
Long term, the odds are that few ECU fans will emphasize very little about Sunday’s opening game against Tulsa and another the following Saturday against Memphis.
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But with both Conference USA games in Greenville and a foreboding non-league schedule that could end in an 0-4 run for the Pirates, McNeill’s first season at his alma mater will evolve into a crisis management ordeal should one of the first two end in a loss.
If ECU’s general history holds, McNeill gradually will restock the roster with enough talent and expertise to contend for league titles and spring occasional upsets against the steady diet of nonconference foes he’ll face from the ACC and Big East.
Logically, that process should take three or four seasons to complete. But it’s a tenuous blueprint. Given that aggressive non-league philosophy, building and maintaining program momentum will always be a tricky task for ECU.
McNeill, athletic director Terry Holland and most of the team’s fans agree that such scheduling is necessary to provide the program with a robust regional identity in an area dotted with ACC programs.
But while the strategy essentially has proven to be both sensible and productive, it also leaves almost no room for error in Conference USA games.
To put it another way, the potential for invigorating upsets comes with a steep downside potential.
On paper, McNeill’s almost completely inexperienced first team should have a reasonable chance to win five or six games, make some noise in the C-USA East and form the foundation for a run at seven or so wins in 2011 and maybe eight or nine in 2012.
But player confidence is an inordinately important factor for the Pirates, as it is for most teams from outside the primary BCS huddle.
A 3-9 or 4-8 start almost certainly would extend McNeill’s glide path and possibly ignite a mood of unusual urgency entering spring and preseason 2011 camp.
That’s why these first two games are so critical.
The Pirates are favored against Tulsa and will be against Memphis, barring a big opening-game misstep.
If the new coach can start 2-0, then 5-7 or 6-6 will be there for taking. But if the Pirates take an 0-2 or 1-1 record to Virginia Tech on Sept. 18, the outlook for the rest of the season becomes gloomy.