Preseason predictions are like the busywork students are forced to do whenever they have a substitute teacher.
They have little substance or significance and are long forgotten by the time the regular teacher returns to class. Or in this case, they serve no other purpose than to give fans and the media something to talk about through the long, hot month between the start of fall camp and the opening week of the college football season.
So it should be taken with a grain of salt that East Carolina was picked to finish fifth in the American Athletic Conference’s East Division this season.
Not according to new coach Scottie Montgomery.
Even though the projection was justifiable based on last year’s fifth place finish and the fact that the Pirates will be breaking in both a new coaching staff and a new quarterback this season, that didn’t stop Montgomery from taking it as a personal affront to him and his new program.
“I’m human, just like the rest of our football team and the rest of our coaches,” Montgomery said last weekend at ECU’s preseason media day. “Is it motivation? People can say if it’s motivation or not, but most of all it hurts your feelings a little bit. …
“It pisses us off to read some of that stuff, because we know how hard our kids work and no one wants to be picked down there. But it’s up to us to change that.”
Clearly, Montgomery plans to use the AAC’s preseason poll as motivation as the season goes along. But aside from the traditional bulletin board fodder, there are other reasons why it’s in his best interest not to let anyone – either on the field or in the stands at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium – forget how little faith the league’s media have in the Pirates.
In fact, the fifth-place prediction may just be the most advantageous thing that could possibly happen to a young coach getting ready to dive headlong into his rookie season.
It puts Montgomery and the Pirates into a no-lose situation.
If they finish five in the AAC, it’s right where they were supposed to be. If they win six games and sneak into a bowl, it’s a modest success that can be viewed as a baby step in the right direction and a building block toward the future.
Then again if the moon and stars align, the ball bounces just right and ECU wins 8-9 games and contends for the division title, the low expectations will allow the Pirates to be viewed as overachievers and set Montgomery up to earn a nice shiny Coach of the Year trophy in his first year out of the gate.
“It’s absolutely an advantage,” quarterback Philip Nelson said. “It’s exactly where we want to be.
“This team is filled with underdogs. I know a lot of the guys here have been overlooked and we’re getting overlooked as a whole. That’s only going to push this team that much harder.”
It could also potentially help the Pirates fly under the radar and sneak up on a few opponents.
Though not for long.
With high-profile – and eminently winnable – games against Autonomy 5 opponents N.C. State, South Carolina and Virginia Tech on the schedule in the first four weeks, ECU has a golden opportunity to gain some positive attention and change a lot of opinions long before playing its AAC opener against Central Florida on Oct. 1.
“If people overlook us, I think that will change once they see us come out and really play football,” cornerback DaShaun Amos said. “It’s up to us to go out and prove how good we are.”
It’s a “don’t get mad, get even” mantra that is rapidly becoming this team’s rallying point, not that their new coach wants them to start looking that far ahead.
“This is a big boy sport and I respect the right of people to pick us where they want to pick us,” Montgomery said. “But those same people haven’t been with us every step of this journey.
“That’s what our kids understand. This is a journey that we’re focusing on. We’re not necessarily focusing on the destination. That (fifth place) pick is a destination. We have to focus on and be in the journey.”