There’s always a sense for North Carolina and N.C. State that there’s very little to be gained from playing East Carolina and a great deal potentially to be lost. Nationally, the ACC schools are expected to beat a lesser-conference foe, outsiders often being unaware of the powerful regional dynamic at work.
N.C. State coach Dave Doeren hinted at that mood when he said Saturday’s game was “the biggest on the schedule” for East Carolina, which he later clarified was a statement of knowing how the Pirates feel (based on his experience at Northern Illinois) and not an implication that it means less to the Wolfpack.
It shouldn’t; this game has occasionally proven an unexpected pitfall for Doeren (once) and Larry Fedora (twice), but the bigger picture suggests that the bigger schools do have something to gain from playing East Carolina, regardless of results.
A strong East Carolina program is good for football in North Carolina, raising the bar for everyone, generating fan interest and creating more opportunities for the state’s better high-school players to stay home.
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The risks for N.C. State and North Carolina are not insignificant. The Pirates are 7-7 in their past 14 games against the Tar Heels and Wolfpack, part of an 11-13 record against the ACC since Skip Holtz arrived in 2005. (Curiously, or not, the Pirates are 1-12 against other Power 5 teams since then.)
But a strong East Carolina program is good for football in North Carolina, raising the bar for everyone, generating fan interest and creating more opportunities for the state’s better high-school players to stay home. Games against East Carolina attract attention in a way that games against Appalachian State or Charlotte would not, because the gap between the Pirates and their ACC rivals is so much smaller.
Now that East Carolina has missed its best chance to get into a power conference, unable to muster the kind of political muscle Virginia Tech flexed to get into the ACC and gently rejected by the Big 12 to no one’s surprise, the Pirates have to stick to an old-school nonconference scheduling policy that includes not only games against the two big public schools in the state but nearby power-conference opponents like Virginia Tech, West Virginia and South Carolina.
Until last season, it was taken for granted that East Carolina would face an in-state ACC opponent. From 1999-2014, East Carolina played at least one of Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest. In eight of those seasons, the Pirates played two of them. But Saturday’s game against N.C. State is one of only four such games over an eight-season span, a significant drop-off.
East Carolina will host North Carolina in 2018 and play a home-and-home with N.C. State in 2019 and 2022. The Pirates have a full schedule in 2020 but there are plenty of open dates beyond that, even with a near-annual series with Virginia Tech that includes nine games in 10 years both home and away.
If the Hokies can do that, there’s no reason why N.C. State and North Carolina can’t each do half of that as long as the ACC stays at eight conference games. The Tar Heels played the Pirates six straight years before last season, while this will be the 29th time N.C. State has played East Carolina since 1970.
It shouldn’t just fall on N.C. State and North Carolina, even if Duke and Wake Forest may not face the political pressure to schedule East Carolina the public schools do. They would benefit, though, not only in terms of the state’s football culture but ticket sales at Wallace Wade Stadium and BB&T Field. Duke last played East Carolina in 2005; Wake Forest in 2004.
(The same rationale applies in the other direction for East Carolina scheduling Appalachian State and Charlotte.)
Conference roulette has yet to land on East Carolina’s number. With each expansion and reshuffling, the Pirates have remained well outside the Power 5, victims of geography and other factors. That doesn’t figure to change anytime soon.
Until then, it’s to everyone’s benefit to ensure a steady stream of in-state rivalry games both in Greenville and elsewhere. The nonconference schedule is full of meaningless games. This is a big game. For everyone.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock