It was always going to be a near-impossible task for East Carolina on Saturday. South Carolina is a difficult place to play under the best of circumstances. These circumstances will be some of the worst for the Pirates.
Yet as your favorite inspirational poster will remind you, from great challenges come great opportunities. As the Pirates begin a three-game stretch against SEC and ACC teams, their first back-to-back-to-back run against power-conference opponents in a decade, they have a chance to set themselves apart from the rabble and make the kind of early season statement that is not forgotten in November.
David vs. Goliath
After an opening weekend that saw most teams from the so-called Power Five conferences easily dispatch lesser opposition, East Carolina heads into Williams-Brice Stadium carrying a worn and tattered flag for the American and the other smaller FBS conferences.
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Against the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC, teams from the American, Mid-American, Conference USA, Mountain West, Sun Belt went a staggering 3-17 against the big boys in Week 1, with only Temple (at Vanderbilt), Colorado State (vs. Colorado in Denver) and Louisiana-Monroe (vs. Wake Forest) recording victories.
Needless to say, no one is confusing Wake Forest, Colorado or Vanderbilt with South Carolina.
Nor did Texas A&M do East Carolina any favors. If the Gamecocks had recorded the expected comfortable opening win over the Johnny Football-free Aggies, it’s possible the Pirates might have been able to sneak into Columbia unnoticed – and emerge unscathed.
Alas, South Carolina will be awake and aware Saturday after being embarrassed by Texas A&M in front of the usual raucous home crowd. The Gamecocks may have as much to prove as the Pirates, not a great formula for an East Carolina upset.
Still, a win Saturday could be a springboard for great things. The last time the Pirates won at South Carolina was 1999, in the middle of Hurricane Floyd. The Pirates won, stayed in Columbia to practice all week and returned to beat Miami at N.C. State’s Carter-Finley Stadium.
That team beat West Virginia, Duke, South Carolina and Miami to open the season (and later beat N.C. State). In 2008, the Pirates beat Virginia Tech and West Virginia in consecutive weeks to open the season, the last time East Carolina beat a ranked nonconference opponent.
This team, having beaten N.C. Central, now plays 21st-ranked South Carolina, also-receiving-votes Virginia Tech and 21st-ranked North Carolina to complete its opening stretch.
In the glory days of East Carolina football, it was spurts of scheduling like this that allowed the Pirates to set themselves apart, whether until Bill Lewis or Steve Logan or Skip Holtz. Coming off a breakthrough 10-win season, with a smoothly polished offense led by Shane Carden and Justin Hardy, this is Ruffin McNeill’s chance to make the same kind of statement.
The deck appears to be squarely stacked against the Pirates, not just on Saturday but next week in Blacksburg and even at home against the Tar Heels, who will surely remember last year’s loss in Chapel Hill.
Chances like this don’t come along often. No one will hold it against the Pirates if they falter. Everyone will notice if they succeed. If it looked easy, it wouldn’t be such a great opportunity to make history. Again.