2012 Record: 8-5 (7-1 in C-USA)
Head Coach: Ruffin McNeill (19-19 at ECU, 16-8 in C-USA)
Last Bowl Game: 2012 New Orleans Bowl: lost to Louisiana 43-34
Stadium: Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, NC (capacity = 50,000)
Home Field Advantage: ranked 2nd out of 55 mid-major teams
ACC Games: 9/14 vs Virginia Tech, 9/28 at UNC, 11/23 at NC State
Toughest Conference Home Game: 11/9 vs Tulsa
Toughest Conference Road Game: 9/29 at Marshall
Stat to Fear: gave up 205 plays of 10 or more yards (10th in C-USA)
Stat to Cheer: scored on 92.59% of red zone trips (1st in C-USA)
Advanced Stats (Football Outsiders 2012 FEI Ranking): 107th out of 124 teams
Phil Steele's Returning Starters: Offense: 7, Defense: 8, Special Teams: 0
Key Defensive Returnees: LB Jeremy Grove (83 tackles), LB Derrell Johnson (62 tackles, 6.5 sacks), FS Damon Magazu (80 tackles)
Key Offensive Returnees: QB Shane Carden (3116 yds pass, 66.1% completions, 23 TD, 10 INT), WR Justin Hardy (88 rec, 11 TD), RB Vintavious Cooper (1049 yds rush, 5.25 ypc, 7 TD, 26 rec)
Nathan Summers: If the defense can keep them in games, the Pirates can have their best season under Ruffin McNeill to date. The Pirates' vulnerability in defending the long pass became epidemic at times last season, including in their season-ending loss to Louisiana-Lafayette at the New Orleans Bowl.
The hire of former ECU defensive backs coach Rick Smith as the new defensive coordinator could prove to be the key to the Pirates' success this season. Offensively, Carden and a massive corps of receivers led by 1000-yard man Hardy will be among the most lethal in Conference USA, and with the return of 1,000-yard back Cooper, the ECU offense is as talented and experienced as ever.
CFBZ: In the new alignment of Conference USA for 2013, who do you see as the Pirates primary competition in the East?
Nathan Summers: With primary division foe UCF already headed to the American Athletic Conference, ECU should be the East Division favorite along with Marshall, the team ECU has taken to overtime twice in the last two seasons, losing one and winning one. Southern Miss and UAB continue to rebuild.
CFBZ: What will make the 2013 season a success in your eyes?
Nathan Summers: The two lines. On offense, ECU is solid at the skill positions and only lacked consistency up front last season to have even greater success. Another year of experience for the line should mean much greater stability. On defense, the front seven will once again be the strength while a retooled secondary finds its footing under Smith. With experienced starters like Terry Williams and Lee Pegues back on the front three, the Pirate pass rush should be greatly improved.
The Pirates hope to build on their 7-1 conference record from last season as they were just one loss away from playing in the C-USA Championship Game. This team returns a lot of weapons on offense. QB Shane Carden took over in the South Carolina game and got better as the season progressed. In penultimate game of the season he threw for 439 yds on 80.9% completions and 3 TDs against the team that the Pirates should be duking it out with for the C-USA East this year (Marshall). RB Vinatavious Cooper is another player who didn't start out the year as a starter but made his mark as the season progressed. His coming out party was against UTEP where he carried the ball 23 times for 151 yards. He would go on to have three other 100 yard rushing games. The key weapon at WR is Justin Hardy. He finished first in C-USA in receiving TDs (11) and was second in receptions with 88. The OL returns three starters and should hold up well in conference play.
ECU's defense gave up 31.6 ppg and 430 ypg in 2012. This year they welcome a new DC, Rick Smith, and hope that will help them improve enough to take home a C-USA East crown. The DL returns four of it's top five but didn't get a ton of production from those players in 2012 as they combined for just 5.5 sacks. Just about the entire LB corps return including leading tackler Jeremy Grove and leading sacker Derrell Johnson. The secondary returns three of four starters and also have former RB Michael Dobson pushing for playing time. If the Pirates want to go to the C-USA Championship Game their defense could be what gets them there in an offensive driven league.
The out of conference schedule is tough as they face three ACC teams (two on the road) and future C-USA opponent ODU. The conference schedule is not as tough but two games really stand out- 11/9 vs Tulsa and 11/30 at Marshall. Those two games will decide the season for the Pirates. If I was Vegas I'd set the over/under on wins for ECU at 7.
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