Coming off its best season since 2014, East Carolina should be a challenger for the American Athletic Conference football championship in 2022.
The Pirates are trending upward after going 7-5 overall and 5-3 in the AAC in 2021 with significant experience and talent returning on both sides of the ball. ECU has some additions from the transfer portal that could immediately impact the potential for more success.
Cincinnati appears to be the biggest roadblock to the Pirates’ first league crown since winning Conference USA in 2009, but the Bearcats will seek their third straight league title in their last season before exiting for the Big 12 without some vital personnel that enabled a run to the College Football Playoff last year.
Here’s a look at how ECU’s league schedule will unfold:
Navy, Sept. 24
The Midshipmen’s last trip to Greenville in 2020 produced a 27-23 win as the Pirates were without starting quarterback Holton Ahlers due to a COVID test that might have been a false positive.
ECU topped Navy, 38-35, last season as Owen Daffer kicked a game-ending 54-yard field goal and subsequently was awarded a scholarship in an elated locker room.
The Mids were 4-8 overall and 3-5 in the AAC in 2021. Navy doesn’t take transfers, which shuts down an avenue for immediate improvement. Graduate players and fifth-year seniors also are prohibited in Annapolis.
Quarterback Taj Lavatai is one of only four returning starters on offense, but he and his teammates have an open date before coming to Greenville. ECU will have many more fans than the 3,500 in 2020.
At South Florida, Oct. 1
ECU intercepted three passes on a rainy Thursday night at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for a 29-14 win last season as the Bulls went 2-10 overall and 1-7 in league play.
USF visits Florida and Louisville in the weeks before hosting the Pirates.
The Bulls are seeking a return to grid relevance in the third season for former Clemson offensive coordinator Jeff Scott as coach. Ten starters return on offense and eight are back on defense.
There were also 21 new faces in spring practice.
At Tulane, Oct. 8
The Pirates will play a team they beat in 2021 for the third straight game when they travel to Tulane.
Last season’s matchup in Greenville turned into an offensive showcase as ECU had 310 yards rushing and 302 through the air in a 52-29 win.
The setback was part of an 8-game losing streak for Tulane, which went 2-10 overall and 1-7 in the AAC.
With quarterback Michael Pratt among eight returning starters on offense and only one Power Five opponent, Kansas State, Tulane expects an upturn.
Memphis, Oct. 15
A 30-29 overtime road win over the Tigers was one of the highlights last year for the Pirates, who had taken a 70-13 pounding in their previous trip to Memphis in 2017.
The Tigers, (6-6, 3-5 in 2021) will be the homecoming opponent for the Pirates.
Like ECU, Memphis had a bowl game canceled due to COVID issues. The Tigers were supposed to play Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl.
Only four starters are back for new defensive coordinator Matt Barnes.
Central Florida, Oct. 22
The Knights finished with Sunshine State bragging rights that included wins over USF and Florida to finish the season 9-4 overall and 5-3 in the AAC under Gus Malzahn in his first season at UCF.
ECU was on the short end of a 20-16 score in Orlando last year as the hosts scored a deciding touchdown with 23 seconds remaining. The Pirates went ahead, 16-10, on a 34-yard field goal by Daffer with 7:01 to go.
UCF has won six in a row against ECU to tie the series at 10.
The Pirates haven’t beaten the Knights in Greenville since a 38-31 victory in 2011. UCF joins the Big 12 in 2023.
At Cincinnati, Nov. 11
ECU will visit the Bearcats on a Friday night after a Friday night nonconference game at Brigham Young the preceding week.
Cincinnati must replace quarterback Desmond Ridder, twice the AAC Offensive Player of the Year, who was a catalyst in a 13-1 season that ended with a 27-6 Cotton Bowl loss to top-seeded Alabama in the CFP.
Seniors Ben Bryant, a transfer from Eastern Michigan, and Evan Prater are competing to be Ridder’s successor. Bryant threw for over 3,000 yards last year. Prater completed five of 11 as Ridder’s back-up.
Coach Luke Fickell went to the transfer portal for defensive reinforcements on a unit that lost seven starters, including a handful to the NFL.
The Bearcats came to Greenville and defeated the Pirates 35-13 in the Nov. 26 regular season finale for both teams, a game that was televised on ABC.
Houston, Nov. 19
The Pirates outscored host Houston, 14-0, in the fourth quarter last season before falling, 31-24, in overtime.
The Cougars finished 12-2 overall and 8-0 in the AAC with a 35-20 loss at Cincinnati in the league championship game. Houston took a 17-13 bowl win over Auburn.
Without Cincinnati and UCF on the schedule, the Cougars are contenders for the AAC title in their last season in the league.
Quarterback Clayton Tune will look to All-AAC wideout Nathaniel Dell to offset the loss of running back Alton McCaskill IV to a knee injury in spring practice.
At Temple, Nov. 26
After six straight AAC losses to the Owls, ECU has taken decisive wins the last two years — including a 45-3 victory in Greenville in 2021 as the Pirates allowed a meager 168 yards of total offense.
Temple plays its first game under new coach Stan Drayton at Duke on Sept. 2 with six starters back on each side of the ball.
Drayton has taken over a team that was 3-9 in 2021 and 1-7 in the AAC.
Owls quarterback D’Wan Mathis started at Georgia at the outset of the 2020 season. He had entered the portal from Temple before former coach Rod Carey was dismissed.
Playing in Philadelphia is a challenge in itself.
Potential and reality are different entities, but the Pirates face two of three projected AAC title contenders — UCF and Houston — at home. The crowd at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium can provide a huge advantage.
There are two trips to NFL venues, Raymond James Stadium (USF) and Lincoln Financial Field (Temple).
Mid-season toss-ups at Tulane and at home against Memphis may determine if ECU will be in the championship picture down the stretch.
As always, staying healthy, avoiding penalties and turnovers, and developing confidence will be determining factors.