“The most important game we play is the next one on the schedule.”
It’s a line that’s been used so many times by coaches and players in every sport that it’s become an eye roll inducing cliché.
But in the case of the 2017 East Carolina football team, it’s true. The next game on the Pirates’ schedule really is the most important one they’ll play.
Because while coach Scottie Montgomery and his team will play tougher, more highly-rated opponents during the next 13 weeks — including some with conference championship implications — none of those matchups have the potential to make or break the upcoming season more than does Saturday’s opener against James Madison.
For a number of reasons.
First and foremost is the bottom line. Although it’s way too early to start handicapping ECU’s chances at returning to the postseason for the first time since 2014, the task of earning the six victories necessary for bowl eligibility isn’t going to be easy against a schedule ranked among the nation’s most challenging.
It’s a goal that will become exponentially more difficult if the Pirates don’t pick up a win at home against one of the least-intimidating opponents they’ll play.
Sure, the Dukes are coming off a 14-win season in which they won the FCS championship and have most of their most potent weapons back from an offense that averaged 46.6 points per game, led by quarterback Bryan Schor.
But they’re still an FCS opponent, and FBS teams are always supposed to win these kinds of matchups regardless of the circumstances, especially if they entertain any thoughts of being competitive with — let alone beating — the likes of West Virginia, Virginia Tech and South Florida over the following three weeks.
Montgomery and his staff have significantly upgraded both the Pirates’ talent and depth since the end of last season with the addition of five graduate transfers, including two from defending national champion Clemson, several JUCOs and talented traditional transfer. They’ve had a productive preseason camp from all accounts and optimism is running high.
“Our team is doing a really good job, our coaches are doing a good job of when they leave the field, they make sure we create the kind of environment that is conducive to winning,” Montgomery said at the start of camp.
In other words, all the elements are there for ECU to sneak up on people and make a significant improvement from last year’s 3-9 disappointment.
At the same time, though, the Pirates are a team that lost nine of the last 10 games they played in 2016. The confidence they’ve built since then can become very fragile very quickly if their fresh start they’ve worked so hard to create looks a lot like the stale finish they’re trying to forget.
It’s easy to say that the pass rush will be better thanks to addition of Gaelin Elmore, Tyree Owens, Brandon Henderson and new position coach Robert Prunty or that the duo of Derrell Scott and Tyshon Dye will significantly improve a stagnant running game or that the receiving corps really is deep enough to withstand the loss of record-setter Zay Jones.
Until those things actually play out on the field, it’s nothing more than wishful thinking — like going through the Christmas catalogue each December when you were a kid picking out all the presents you’d like to get.
Talk is especially cheap for a fan base already frustrated over two straight losing seasons. Dropping the opening game to an FCS opponent wouldn’t be the best way to create excitement and keep people coming back in a season that features seven games at Dowdy-Ficklen for the first time in school history.
James Madison might not make for the most anticipated matchup on an attractive home schedule that includes visits by Virginia Tech, USF, Temple, Brigham Young and Cincinnati. But because of its pivotal effect on the direction the Pirates’ season will take, it is by far the most important.
At least until the the next game on the schedule.