Every team in every conference starts every season with similar goals, regardless of the expectations placed on them by others. They are to improve each week, qualify for a bowl and with any luck, bring home a championship.
The problem is, college football isn’t like most youth sports in which everybody gets a trophy — even with a system that “rewards” a full 63 percent of FBS teams with postseason bids.
At a certain point, those destined to finish in the unfortunate minority are forced to lower the bar and recalibrate their goals.
That time has arrived for East Carolina.
While mathematically the Pirates have not yet been eliminated from bowl contention, realistically their most reachable objective for the remainder of the 2016 season is simply the elusive pursuit of improvement. And perhaps, remember what it’s like to win again.
“I have never put emphasis on a set number of wins,” a frustrated rookie coach Scottie Montgomery said earlier this week. “I want us to be the best football team we can and we have not done that in my opinion.
“My standards never change. We don’t want to just let things happen and say we will fix them later. Our team standard is to win at everything we do. We haven’t won on Saturdays and that is a clear reflection on what we do during the week. We have to continue to improve in that aspect. . . . A win this week would go a long way in solving a lot of things.”
ECU hasn’t had that winning feeling since Sept. 10, seven full weeks ago.
A season that started with such excitement and promise after two impressive wins — including an emotional conquering of in-state rival N.C. State — has quickly unraveled into a twisted web of penalties, special teams breakdowns, missed red zone opportunities and turnovers committed at the worst possible times.
Many of those problems reared their ugly head again last Saturday in a 31-19 loss at Cincinnati that was much closer — and exponentially more frustrating — than the final score suggests.
If there’s a silver lining to the losing streak, which currently sits at five heading into this week’s home game against UConn, it’s that for all their physical mistakes the Pirates have to this point resisted the temptation to mail in their effort.
Maintaining the motivation to keep playing hard, however, gets more difficult with each mounting loss. One need only look back to last year’s game at winless Central Florida to see what happens when a team gets beaten down to the point of giving up.
While it’s ultimately the job of Montgomery and his staff to prevent this Pirate ship from sinking, it’s just as incumbent upon the leaders among their crew to do their part in turning things around and keeping things afloat for the season’s final five games.
“This is big person football,” Montgomery said. “We are competing at the highest level. If you can’t be consistent doing that, you won’t be accountable anyway.
“The biggest thing we are working on right now is our leadership with the seniors and making sure they remain confident because some of them are grading out as high as they can. That doesn’t matter though if there is a turnover, blown coverage or missed tackle. A lot of guys are confident in themselves, but we need them to be confident in each other as well.”
There’s only one real way to build that kind of confidence in one another and that’s to experience success.
In this case, it means remembering what it’s like to win again.
That’s a modest goal by comparison to the high hopes that danced in the Pirates’ heads when the season began. But it’s a low bar they must first find a way to clear before they can set their sights on earning whatever tangible trophies are still left for them to pursue.