ECU football: Pirates ready for new challenge in AAC

jgiglio@newsobserver.comJune 12, 2014 

Beef O Bradys Bowl Football

East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill, left, and wide receiver Lance Ray (3) hold the trophy after East Carolina won the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl NCAA college football game, 37-20 over Ohio, Monday, Dec. 23, 2013, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)


East Carolina’s football team hit the double-digit win mark for the second time last season.

The Pirates, who finished 10-3, beat North Carolina and N.C. State – both handily – in the same season for the first time.

Now – between spring practice and the start of training camp in August – would be as good of a time as any for Ruffin McNeill, the Pirates’ affable coach, to enjoy the outstanding season.

“I’ve tried,” said McNeill, who is 29-22 in four seasons at his alma mater, “but in this business you’ve got to move onto the next step.”

That’s not coach speak from McNeill, 55, nor is it a normal offseason for the Pirates. ECU’s next game (Aug. 30 vs. N.C. Central) will be its first as a member of the American Athletic Conference.

The Pirates aren’t totally leaving behind Conference USA after 17 years. Six other teams in the American, including Fiesta Bowl champion Central Florida, spent time with them in C-USA.

There’s only slight comfort in past connections for ECU. The American schedule this season includes four familiar C-USA opponents. In 2015, when Navy joins the American, ECU will be in the East Division with most of the Big East leftovers (Cincinnati, UConn, South Florida, Temple and UCF).

In case you lost your laminated Conference Expansion Flow Chart, the American used to be the Big East, until the Catholic basketball teams broke away from the Big East in 2013 and took the name with them.

With Rutgers’ exit for the Big Ten (with Maryland), of the eight teams that played in the inaugural season of Big East football in 1991, only Temple is in the American (and they were exiled from the Big East for seven years before rejoining in 2012).

It can all be very confusing, which is why McNeill prefers to look ahead.

“There are some teams we are familiar with, but it’s a brand new challenge for us,” McNeill said. “And I think it will tougher for us on a week-to-week basis. There are some good teams in this league.”

The move to the American qualifies as an upgrade in conference affiliation for ECU, but the postseason dynamic has changed for all of college football.

Under the old Bowl Championship Series, the American (formerly the Big East), had “automatic qualifier” status. Hence, the league champion was guaranteed to play in one of the major bowls every year (UCF beat Baylor, 52-42 in the Fiesta Bowl last season).

With the advent of the College Football Playoff, the AAC is in the so-called “Group of Five” conferences with the Mid-American, Mountain West, C-USA and Sun Belt.

Don’t confuse the “Group of Five” with the “Power Five” conferences (the SEC, ACC, Pac-12, Big Ten and Big 12) that have retained their automatic status with the major bowls (the ACC champion, for example, is guaranteed to play in Orange this year if it’s not selected for the four-team playoff).

The highest-rated team from the Group of Five, as ranked by the CFP selection committee, will have a spot in one of the major bowls. For the 2014 season, that means the Peach, Cotton or Fiesta bowls. ECU, with quarterback Shane Carden back, has its sights set on winning the American title in its inaugural season.

Again, that’s not necessarily McNeill’s top priority. He does have concerns about the “Power Five” and where they are headed, in terms of splitting Division I into tiers.

“I hope it doesn’t destroy this great game,” McNeill said. “I’ll compare what we have to any of those other 64 (power) teams.

“I think every team in this league feels the same way and that’s no disrespect to anyone.”

One decision already made by the ACC, and the SEC, that could affect ECU has to do with nonconference scheduling. Both the ACC and SEC want their teams to schedule one game each year against another “Power Five” conference opponent.

ECU wouldn’t fit that criteria. The Pirates are in good shape in the near future, with seven games with Virginia Tech, three with N.C. State, two each with South Carolina and West Virginia and one each with UNC and Florida on the books between this season and 2022.

But one of the oldest rules of college football is the path of least resistance to a bowl game is the best path. How many 55-31 (at UNC) or 42-28 (at N.C. State) beatings will it take before ECU gets frozen out?

McNeill wants to keep the big games out of the conference, especially against the in-state teams, but he understands it is out of his control.

“If they don’t want to play us, then that’s how it goes,” McNeill said. “Let me just say, as humbly as possible, I love competing and I hope those other (in-state teams) do, too.”

Giglio: 919-829-8938

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