East Carolina was picked to finish fifth in the American Athletic Conference’s East Division in a poll taken at the league’s annual media event in Newport, RI, last week.
That wasn’t a surprise.
After going 3-9 in in Scottie Montgomery’s first season as a head coach, it’s inevitable that expectations of the Pirates would be low heading into the rapidly approaching 2017 season. But that, at least in Montgomery’s opinion, has only set ECU up to become the league’s surprise team.
“We do a lot of research on the teams that are in our league, but we don’t necessarily think that everybody has done the proper research on our football team and the transition that we’ve done,” the Pirates’ coach told Bonesville’s Al Myatt in Newport. “I’m glad to know that our players have noticed it, because they know where we were last year and now they know where we are this year.”
Montgomery and his players are really the only ones who have any idea what to expect this season because of the influx of talent that has been added to the program both by traditional recruiting and the use of the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule.
ECU has brought in five veteran newcomers to help shore up areas of greatest need — pass rush, running game and quarterback — and their impact could end up being the difference between another fifth place finish and a dramatic rise up the AAC standings.
Another thing the Pirates could potentially have going for them is the makeup of their conference, especially their division. A little research into the teams in their league, to borrow Montgomery’s own words, shows that ECU isn’t alone in its uncertainty as camps get set to begin.
Even overwhelming preseason favorite South Florida, which received all 30 first place votes in last week’s media poll, has its share of mystery now that coach Willie Taggart has parlayed his work rebuilding the Bulls into a higher profile job at Oregon.
Taggart’s replacement, Charlie Strong, brings with him a recognizable name and a Power Five resume, but his performance at Texas — which ended up getting him fired after last season — doesn’t automatically translate into continued success.
And while 2016 AAC Player of the Year Quinton Flowers is back to quarterback an offense that was the highest-scoring unit in the league, USF will have to find replacements for 1,100-yard rusher Marlon Mack and leading receiver Rodney Adams while also upgrading a defense that ranked 10th in the conference while allowing better than 31 points per game.
Co-defending division champion Temple and former conference power Cincinnati will also have to adjust to a new coaches.
Both teams must also break in new quarterbacks while the Owls face the prospect of restocking a defense that lost eight of 11 starters and the Bearcats look to reverse the downward trend that led to the departure of former coach Tommy Tuberville.
Central Florida, which was picked to finish second in the East, is in much the same situation as ECU with a second year coach looking to build on the foundation that was laid a year ago. Although Scott Frost would appear to be further along in the process than Montgomery and his Pirates, it should be noted that the Knights were hardly world-beaters with only six wins to their credit.
Although most of its offensive weapons and AAC Defensive Player of the Year Shaquem Griffin return, UCF will have to find replacements at the other three linebacker positions and its entire starting secondary.
ECU didn’t get any favors from the conference with divisional crossover opponents Memphis and Houston, who were picked to finish 1-2 in the West. But in a recurring theme in the AAC this season, the Cougars could potentially be vulnerable with a rookie head coach and “Major” holes to fill with the loss of star quarterback Greg Ward Jr. and a pair of NFL defensive backs.
With so much turnover in the coaching ranks, the AAC projects to be a league in transition this season. It’s an uncertainty that makes the conference ripe for a surprise.
Even from a team whose fifth-place prediction was anything but a surprise.