The College Football Playoff committee released its first rankings for the 2023 season on Tuesday night and East Carolina was immediately put in a compromising position.
The Pirates (1-7) host Tulane (7-1) on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. (ESPNU).
The Green Wave was No. 24 in the ratings that will eventually determine the CFP teams. ECU’s upcoming foe is also the highest rated team among the Group of Five (non-Power Five programs), a slot ahead of Air Force (8-0) at No. 25.
If Tulane holds the lead in the CFP rankings among the Group of Five schools, the Wave would go to a higher-paying New Year’s Six Bowl. Since bowl revenues are shared by conference members, the Pirates potentially could do better financially with a loss on Saturday as opposed to pulling an upset and knocking Tulane out of the Top 25.
It is not a situation restricted to the American Athletic Conference.
No. 4 Florida State is in contention for a playoff berth and a payout in the $6 million range, which would mean monetary distribution around the Atlantic Coast Conference. So, Pitt is in much the same position as the Pirates as it hosts the Seminoles on Saturday.
No doubt the Big Ten hopes Ohio State and Michigan arrive at their showdown in Ann Arbor on Nov. 25 with unblemished records in terms of potential ca-ching for league coffers.
The pending catch-22 is no doubt a non-factor to ECU players and coaches as they prepare for a win on Saturday.
Strong effort at UTSA
The Pirates are coming off a 41-27 loss at Texas-San Antonio.
“Tough loss down in San Antonio this past weekend,” said ECU coach Mike Houston on Tuesday. “I thought the players played very, very hard and were ready to play. I thought we came out with a lot of energy. We came out and did some really good things there, especially offensively, early in the ball game against a very good team. Kind of had a back-and-forth ball game for much of the day. Just really pleased with the effort of the players.
“I thought the four explosive plays we gave up defensively were ones that we have not been giving up, and ones that we should make the play. Those were big. We had two trips deep in UTSA territory and we came up with no points. You’ve got to convert those into points against a quality opponent. Our guys gave us a chance to win, but we weren’t able to get that done. I think we faced a very good opponent and they’ve got a lot left of the season to play for.”
The Pirates quickly focused forward.
“The kids are excited about the matchup this week,” Houston said. “They were fantastic on Sunday, very motivated and glad to be back home in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Obviously, a challenging opponent in a 7-1 Tulane, ranked in the Top 25, veteran quarterback in Michael Pratt, veteran defense, veteran offense, quality football team we’re facing. The guys are excited about the matchup. Looking forward to game day.”
The Pirates can’t reach the 6-win threshold necessary for a bowl bid, but they are looking to go unbeaten this week.
“We talked about it in our leadership counsel Sunday night,” Houston said. “They set the message the same as I do, which is next game. It’s a 1-0 mentality. The only game you can focus on is the game this week. They’re very dialed in on that and I’m very encouraged by their attitude.”
There were areas of improvement apparent against the Roadrunners.
“I thought we saw us gel and play together this past weekend,” Houston said. “Obviously got some more consistent play from our offensive front, got some more consistent play from our wide receivers. I thought the quarterback play (Alex Flinn) was more consistent and improved this weekend, so I think the combination of all those factors resulted in a better performance.
“That’s what we all desire. It’s like, ‘Hey that’s the guy we’ve been waiting on,’ and they have, too. I think that the positive result is that should give the guys some confidence and we want to really build on that going into this weekend.”
Wave as prototype
Tulane was 2-10 in 2021 with a 52-29 road loss to the Pirates. The Green Wave got things turned around last season to go 12-2. They won the AAC championship before rallying past Southern California for a 46-45 victory in the Cotton Bowl.
“Every year is a new year, and every team is a new team,” Houston said. “There’s no doubt about it. The thing is they had a challenging year two years ago, but they have a solid program. We’re having a challenging year this year, but we have a solid program.
“We’re very close and that’s how I look at it. That’s why we stay motivated. You stay motivated by looking at the way the kids competed this weekend from an effort level. They’re very invested in this program and so are the coaches. This is a great place to be. We’re excited to be here, and we look forward to playing well this weekend. We look forward to getting Pirate football exactly where it needs to be.”
Eye on future
Houston was asked about playing younger personnel to build for the future in the remainder of the 2023 season.
“Player development has had a front seat the entire season,” Houston said. “That never stops. The focus for us is to go out this weekend and get a win against Tulane. Certainly, we have some guys banged up, so you’re obviously going to see some younger guys make their way into the rotation.
“You’ll probably see some on special teams at some times because now we have the ability to give ourselves more depth in the latter part of the season. The whole focus is how can we help the Pirates have the best chance to win on game day. That’s it.”
Trending NIL effect
Name, Image, Likeness revenue for players has been a game changer across college football.
“The landscape of college football has changed drastically in the last two years,” Houston said. “We talked about it this time last year and I beat that drum pretty loudly at the end of the year last year and all through the winter. The thing is you do have a lot of teams in this league that have invested heavily and when I say teams, really the people surrounding those teams have invested heavily in name, image, and likeness.
“We’re thankful for the name, image, and likeness endorsements that our student athletes enjoy here at East Carolina University. Very thankful for Team Boneyard and what they’ve been able to do. I would just encourage everyone to take a good look at where support is needed for those student-athletes and to continue to invest in the program. Obviously, it makes a huge difference. I think you can get some guys to do some research just on the different investment levels on different programs throughout our conference and our division and see where everything stacks up.”
NIL funds vs. indoor practice facility
There has been a sentiment expressed from the fan base that funds raised for an indoor practice facility could be better used to attract players through NIL payments.
“I think that’s more of an administration question than a head football coach question, but when you’re looking at it from my seat, you need both,” Houston said. “At the end of the day, every coach knows you’re only as good as your players and so everything we do is player centered.
“When I first got the job, I took a look at everything that touched the players’ lives on a daily basis. Nutrition and development were way down so we have pushed to invest heavily in a training table, a new full-time nutritionist, fueling stations in Ward (Medicine Building) and in the weight room, and we’ve been able to establish that. We can see the difference that it made since 2019 in our roster and their development physically.
“Everything for me centers around how we can support the student athletes and so when asked that question, I’d say everything starts with name, image, and likeness.”
Despite the record, Houston believes in the character of the players.
“It says a lot about our student-athletes,” he said. “I love this group of kids. They are outstanding. Every single day I get to spend with them is a great day. We have not gotten the results as far as wins and losses that we’ve wanted this year up to this point, but I am proud of the way they compete.
“I’m proud of the way they responded on Saturday. We were all very disappointed in the performance against Charlotte, but the way they went out and competed at a high level this weekend shows what they’re about. It’s what we want to be about.
“We try very hard to recruit student-athletes that match up with us character wise, toughness wise, work ethic wise, and when I say us, I mean East Carolina University. There’s a certain kind of individual that thrives here at ECU and in this region, that our fan base identifies with, and there’s some student-athletes that don’t.
“I think we have a collection of guys that our fan base can be proud of just with the way they compete on game days and the way they represent themselves in the community. I think that based on the performance this past weekend, I would expect that to be improved this weekend and that’s been my challenge to the coaching staff and the student athletes.”
The Green Wave brings a veteran quarterback to Greenville.
“I think we’ve known who Michael Pratt is since 2020,” Houston said. “He’s one of the top quarterbacks in the country and I told him this summer that I was disappointed to see him returning. He’s a challenge. He’s very composed. He’s a great leader. He’s a guy that makes great decisions in the pocket. He makes good decisions with his legs and throws the ball down field with accuracy probably as well as anybody in this league.
“We have a challenge against him, and he’s surrounded by a very talented group of skill kids: wideouts, tight ends, running backs and a really solid offensive line. We have a tremendous challenge defensively this week facing the Tulane offense. I think their defense is a little different this year. There are some similarities to last year, but they have a new coordinator (Lance Guidry), who we’ve known for a long time. He’s a top-notch coordinator so they’re doing a few things different so when you look at them.
“I can say this about all three phases — you don’t see weaknesses. You see a very solid football team. You see a solid defense. They’re going to make you work for what you get, so that’s the challenge for us. But you’re facing a 7-1 football team with their lone loss being to Ole Miss and that was a close loss. You’re facing one of the best teams in the country. So, the challenge is that, and I’ll say this, our players are really excited about that challenge. I think that probably gives them a little extra motivation this weekend, and I should see that in practice this week.”
True freshman Javious Bond did not play at UTSA. He is averaging 6.7 yards per carry.
“We’re at Week 10, so there’s bumps and bruises no doubt,” Houston said. “That’s just the way it goes with our sport. Javious will practice (Tuesday), so we’ll see how it goes throughout the week. We’ve been cautious with bringing him back too quick just because you don’t want a relapse there with a hamstring strain. We’ll see how he does throughout the week as far as his availability for Saturday.”
Wood leads defense
Safety Julius Wood has been in on a team-high 60 tackles.
“He and I talked Sunday evening, and I just told him I think he’s playing the best ball of his career right now,” Houston said. “You look at him last year, and he was a really good player last year, but really now he’s playing with confidence. When you watch him, you know that’s an experienced football player. He’s a smart football player. He sees things naturally and he plays naturally.
“Great motor and a great intensity. He’s playing all over the place for us and that’s by design. He’s having a great senior season. My only cautions to him, and I’ve told him this, is don’t try to do too much. Make sure you stay within the parameters of the scheme because when he has gotten himself in trouble this year, it’s when he’s tried to make plays that aren’t his to make. Most times it results in big plays for the offense. I thought he did a better job of that last weekend.
“He’s having the kind of senior year you’d hoped he would have, and I know he’s excited to continue to build on that this week.”
Skill personnel gain confidence
ECU got significant production from an array of skill personnel at UTSA.
Jaylen Johnson had eight catches for 105 yards. Chase Sowell’s four receptions netted 54 yards. Jhari Patterson’s three grabs accounted for 22 yards. In his first start, Desirrio Riles had a pair of catches.
Reserve running back Gerald Green carried three times for 53 yards with a longest of 46.
“The guys have been getting those opportunities if you look at targets and plays,” Houston said. “The difference was we were making the plays this past weekend, so it was great to see. It was great to see Jaylen (Johnson) have the production he had. It was great to see Chase (Sowell) have the production he had. It was great to see Jhari (Patterson) have the production he had.
“Desirrio (Riles) in his first college start I thought he was very solid. Now, he’s got some things he can really improve on, and some plays he left out there, but he’s a young guy getting his first crack at everything.
“It was great to have Gerald Green back from injury. You saw the impact that he made. I think with some of the guys you saw make impacts this past weekend, it was them making plays and gaining confidence from making plays. Much like a lot of what we’ve talked about today, we want them to build on that and improve on that this weekend.”