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2020 college football preseason preview: ECU Pirates

The Pirates head into Year 2 of a rebuild, but can they beat expectations in the 2020 season?

East Carolina Pirates tight end Zech Byrd catches a pass for a touchdown against the Southern Methodist Mustangs in the third quarter at Gerald J. Ford Stadium.  Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The ECU Pirates finished 4-8 last season, and just 1-7 in the American Conference. But in a lot of ways, you can consider that a success. The previous iteration in Greenville was 3-9, lost to North Carolina A&T (but somehow beat the North Carolina Tar Heels the next week?), and looked under-talented and poorly coached.

But new head coach Mike Houston has improved the program in several ways: recruiting is up, there was a positive trajectory towards the end of 2019 (take out the final game against Tulsa), and he returns as many players as any team in college football. Things could be looking up for the Pirates, or will a sophomore slump start to take hold?

ECU Pirates Stats Breakdown

Full VIC breakdown
VIC Sheet explanation

Preseason Win Total From DraftKings

Over/under: 4 wins
Over +110
Under -137

Key Stats

  • ECU returns junior quarterback Holton Ahlers, who has played in 22 career games already, including 12 starts last season.
  • In his first full recruiting cycle, Mike Houston had the best class the Pirates have seen in years. With no class better than 79th since 2016, ECU pulled the 70th best in the nation in 2020. It’s a full 15 spots over the team-talent average of their current roster.
  • The Pirates return 83% of their players from 2019, good for fourth in the nation. There are four new defensive coaches, including new defensive coordinator Blake Harrell, previously of Kennesaw State and The Citadel.
  • SP+ Preseason Rank: Overall 96, Offense 60, Defense 109

Schedule

Team (2020 Preseason SP+ ranking)
* AAC Conference Game

vs. Marshall (77)
@ South Carolina (35)
vs. Norfolk St (FCS)
vs. UCF* (18)
@ GSU (103)
@ USF* (83)
vs. Navy* (55)
@ Tulsa* (88)
vs. Tulane* (73)
@ Cincinnati* (34)
@ Temple* (88)
vs. SMU* (56)

Analysis, Prediction

Ahlers returning at quarterback (3,387 yards, 7.7 yards per attempt, 21 TDs, 10 INT) gives the Pirates some upside, and another year in the system should give him more tools to work with this season.

But the issue with returning as many players as ECU does is that if this many are coming back, are they good enough in the first place? Eight offensive starters return, including 37 game starts along the offensive line. Can these players improve enough in a second year to make an impact? ECU is a throw-first team, but lead back Demetrius Mauney rushed for just 3.6 yards per carry on 125 totes last year, and that’s very poor at the FBS level no matter the system.

CJ Johnson, Blake Proehl, and Tyler Snead all return at receiver and are for sure contributing pieces, but they could use some more boost there. Houston has said they’re going to be active in the transfer portal, but nothing has shaken out yet. That’s also with the lingering coronavirus hurting player movement everywhere.

Defensively a team that returns seven starters should be ready to take a step up, but this defense is projected at just 109th by SP+. They gave up at least 7.0 yards per play in their last six games of the season, and will need to be able to get stops to get wins.

Besides Norfolk State, there’s not a free win on the schedule. The Pirates will need to go either 3-5 or 2-6 in the league to get there depending on how the Marshall game shakes out, and will be an underdog in every game for now. While on an upward trajectory, it’s a tougher schedule this season than most in Greenville. Five wins might be tough to come by, and going under seems easier than going over.

Unless some immediate portal help comes in the trenches on both sides and at wide receiver, this seems like a stay away. They can get to five and the over, but it would require beating expectations and some luck this season.

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