Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston are leaving the American Athletic Conference but the traditional powers did not leave with an AAC football championship in their final seasons.
That title belongs to Tulane, which beat UCF, 45-28, in the American championship game.
The Green Wave went on to finish 12-2 with a gripping 46-45 comeback triumph over Southern Cal in the Cotton Bowl.
With six starters back on offense, including quarterback Michael Pratt, and seven starters returning on defense, Tulane must be considered a possibility to repeat in the AAC although the league will be undergoing a vast change in membership.
Six teams from Conference USA join the American, including Texas-San Antonio, which had a 10-game winning streak that ran through the C-USA championship. The Roadrunners’ cupboard is stocked with 10 returners on offense and seven on defense.
East Carolina will play the projected AAC powers on successive weeks, journeying to UTSA for an Oct. 28 matchup before hosting the 2022 champions on Nov. 4.
Those potentially pivotal contests will be preceded by a game in Greenville on Oct, 21 against Charlotte, which is evolving as a rival for the Pirates.
Here’s a look at how the AAC schedule will unfold for ECU:
At Rice, Sept. 30
The series with the Owls stands at 2-2 with the home team winning each meeting. All of the games were played within the C-USA framework between 2005 and 2010.
Rice went 5-8 last year, ending on a 4-game losing streak. Three of the losses for the season were by eight points or less.
The Owls play a demanding nonconference schedule that includes a season opener at Texas prior to a home game with Houston.
Coach Mike Bloomgren welcomes back eight starters on offense with West Virginia transfer J.T. Daniels coming in at quarterback. Daniels has passed for 6,947 yards at stops that include Southern Cal and Georgia.
The Owls are restructuring their offense for Daniels, who will have proven receivers Bradley Rozner and Luke McCaffrey among his targets. Linebackers Chris Conti and Myron Morrison led Rice in tackles last year.
The Owls travel to South Florida before hosting the Pirates.
Southern Methodist, Oct. 12, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)
The nation will be looking in on a Thursday night matchup at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
A 52-38 win in Greenville to conclude the 2020 season gave ECU a 5-4 lead in the series. The Pirates led, 45-7, at the half. Sonny Dykes, who has since moved to Texas Christian, was the coach of the Mustangs at the time.
Rhett Lashlee now guides SMU, which was 7-6 overall and 5-3 in the AAC last season.
Only four starters return on offense and five on defense but transfers will enhance the talent pool.
The Mustangs will provide a quick read on their competitiveness with trips to Oklahoma in Week Two and TCU in Week Four.
Charlotte, Oct. 21
ECU will be meeting the 49ers in football for the first time. Charlotte started playing football in 2013 with a 52-7 win over Campbell, then a non-scholarship program.
The Niners are coming off a 3-9 season and have brought in former Michigan staffer Biff Poggi as coach. Poggi has in turn scoured the transfer portal for 15 players from Power Five schools to enhance five returning starters on offense and four on defense.
Shadrick Byrd ran for 620 yards last year after transferring from Iowa.
Shoring up a defense that yielded 39.4 points per game will be a priority. Linemen Eyabi Okie from Michigan and Demon Clowney from Ole Miss should figure prominently in that mission.
The Charlotte game will be homecoming for the Pirates.
At UTSA, Oct. 28
The Roadrunners are also a relative newcomer on the gridiron, playing their first season in 2011.
UTSA has achieved significantly under Coach Jeff Traylor, going 12-2 in 2021 and 11-3 in 2022, winning the C-USA championship both seasons.
ECU will take on the Roadrunners for the first time in the Alamodome, an indoor facility with a listed capacity of 64,000.
There are 10 starters back on offense, including quarterback Frank Harris, who threw for 4,063 yards and 32 touchdowns last season.
There are seven starters back on defense.
UTSA closes the regular season at Tulane.
Tulane, Nov. 4
The Green Wave trailed, 45-30, in the Cotton Bowl with under five minutes left. Pratt passed to Alex Bauman for the winning touchdown with nine seconds left.
The stunning comeback over a Power Five opponent was a bitter pill for former ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, now the dynamic coach of the Trojans, but it strengthened the case for an expanded College Football Playoff.
Tyjae Spears, who ran for 205 yards with four TDs against Southern California, opted for the NFL draft and was a third round choice by Tennessee. His departure creates a void from a dimension that had helped take pressure off the passing game.
ECU leads the series, 12-7, including a 9-2 margin in Greenville, but the Wave has won four of the last five, including a 24-9 triumph in New Orleans in 2022.
The Pirates took a 52-29 win at home in 2021.
ECU was plagued by costly penalties, a pair of second half interceptions and kicking snafus in last year’s contest.
The Pirates will have Military Appreciation Day when Tulane comes to town.
At Florida Atlantic, Nov. 11
New Owls coach Tom Herman has some familiarity with the AAC as coach at Houston in 2015-16. Herman subsequently coached at Texas from 2017-2020.
Herman takes over a program that went 5-7 and has seven starters returning on each side of the ball.
Running back Larry McCammon III had 1,001 yards rushing last season and should figure prominently again.
ECU won the only previous meeting, 31-13, in Greenville in 2013.
The Owls are expected to play a 3-4 defensively, appearing proficient up front and in the secondary. Linebackers are suspect.
At Navy, Nov. 18
Navy parted ways with Ken Niumatalolo after 13 years following a 20-17 loss to Army that completed a 4-8 season. Defensive coordinator Brian Newbery was promoted.
Despite their struggles in 2022, the Midshipmen managed to go 4-4 in the AAC, taking a 23-20 win at ECU.
Mason Garcia, who projects as the No. 1 quarterback for the Pirates, made his lone start against Navy in a 28-23 ECU loss at home in 2020.
Newberry will have nine starters back on defense and six on offense.
Plans are to continue running the option but mix in more passing.
Navy had a week off before the ECU game last year, but will host Alabama-Birmingham in the week previous to the Pirates in 2023.
Tulsa, Nov. 24 or 25
The date of the Senior Day matchup with the Golden Hurricane is scheduled to be announced by Oct. 9.
Tulsa has won the last three meetings to tie the series at 8-8 although a 34-30 win at Tulsa in 2020 was tainted by a series of questionable late calls, including one that was cited as incorrect by the AAC office.
Each team is 4-4 at home.
Kevin Wilson is in his first year as coach, taking over a program that was 5-7 overall and 3-5 in the AAC. Wilson has been a head coach at Indiana (2011-2016) a well as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma and Ohio State.
Steve Spurrier Jr. will be offensive coordinator on Wilson’s staff.
Transfer Braylin Presley from Oklahoma State will give Spurrier a proven entity at tailback.
Four starters are back on offense and five return on defense.
The AAC has grown to 14 teams with the addition of UAB, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice and UTSA from C-USA.
Teams that are not on the Pirates schedule in 2023 include the Blazers, the Mean Green, Memphis, Temple and South Florida.
The league title game will be on Saturday, Dec. 2, at 4 p.m. and will be shown on ABC or ESPN. It will match the top two teams in the regular season standings after tiebreakers, if necessary, at the higher seeded team’s home field.