The first Saturday of the college football season is just eight weeks away, which means it won’t be long until the Pirates return to the field at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for their 2017 opener against James Madison.
It’s an exciting time for those who can’t wait to start tailgating again, meeting up with old friends and cheering on their favorite team.
But here’s a hint for those getting fired up about the prospect of East Carolina putting together a bounce-back season in Scottie Montgomery’s second year as head coach: Unless you want your optimism dampened before the team ever dons pads for its first fall practice or you simply can’t do without the annual cheerleader photo feature, save your money and stay away from the major preseason preview magazines.
None of them paint a particularly bright picture for 2017.
Athlon and Phil Steele both have the Pirates finishing last in the American Athletic Conference’s East Division. Lindy’s projects them only slightly better in fourth, counting on the addition of former Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk to push them just ahead of Connecticut.
Why do the “experts” have such a low opinion of ECU as it looks to rebound from last year’s forgettable 3-9 record?
Their criticism is almost unanimous. While Montgomery and his staff have enjoyed some success in their first two recruiting classes, the Pirates’ talent pool is not yet up to the level of its top conference rivals.
ATHLON — Of the six position groups ranked by the respected preseason preview, ECU cracked the AAC’s top five in only one area … No. 4 at wide receivers. It also included only one Pirate among the selections, senior wide receiver Jimmy Williams, on either its preseason first- or second-team All-AAC squads.
While the magazine does acknowledge that the addition of graduate transfers Sirk, running back Tyshon Dye from Clemson and defensive end Gaelin Elmore should help the team’s chances for improvement, it still only predicts a 3-9 finish (2-6 in the conference).
PHIL STEELE — Like Athlon, Steele has only one Pirate, receiver Williams, on either of his first two All-AAC teams.
While he does acknowledge that “there are plenty of arrows pointing up,” a nonconference schedule ranked as one of the most difficult in the country and “a defense that is a major question heading into season,” Steele’s confidence level in ECU doesn’t seem high.
“While I expect an improved team,” Steele writes, “none of my nine sets of power ratings calls for a bowl.”
LINDY’S — Lindy’s actually seems to like the Pirates’ roster more than the other two major preview publications and acknowledges that they will benefit from the fact that Montgomery’s systems are now fully in place, allowing the young team to gain experience and “execute with better efficiency.”
In doing so, however, it expressed concern about the potential for a quarterback controversy between Sirk and semi-incumbent Gardner Minshew while touching on the familiar “challenges” of schedule and youth at too many key positions on defense.
As far as other preseason prognostications are concerned, CBSSports.com has ECU ranked as the worst team in the AAC with an over/under of 2.5 wins while the power rankings published by CollegeFootballNews.com has the Pirates at No. 9 ahead of Southern Methodist, Tulane and UConn.
The general consensus is that ECU is still at least a year away from making any kind of significant jump up the conference standings.
While that’s an understandable pick given the way the Pirates stumbled to the finish line with nine losses in their final 10 games last season, it’s hardly a reason to write this team off before the first game is ever played.
Truth be told, the dire preseason predictions could end up being the best thing ECU has going for it. After all, it won’t take much to exceed expectations.
Will ECU be young? Absolutely.
Does it have depth issues and plenty of room for improvement? Yes and yes.
Is the schedule full of potential landmines? Of course it is.
At the same time, there’s also a great deal of potential and a coaching staff that can now learn from the mistakes it made in year one together. Because of the abundance of experienced transfers, two of which have national championship experience, the Pirates could potentially be a wild card nobody — including the “experts” — sees coming.
It won’t be long now.