East Carolina football
East Carolina celebrates after a big win over Coastal Carolina in Dec. 2022 in the Birmingham Bowl (PHOTO COURTESY: ECU Athletics)

East Carolina Eyes AAC Upper Tier

East Carolina has a recently surging football program, with a history that includes ex-Titan speedster RB Chris Johnson. Strong offensive play has been its tradition. This year's offense loses a starting quarterback, a 1,000-yard runner, and two 1,000-yard receivers. Sophomore QB Mason Garcia takes over for Holton Ayers, who threw for 3,700 yards with 67 percent accuracy.

Jaylen Johnson had 340 receiving yards in six starts last year, plus there are now four new receivers from the transfer portal. Sophomore running back Marlon Gunn rushed for 344 yards in six starts last year but may struggle to match Keaton Mitchell's performance from last year.

ECU head coach Mike Houston has several seasons with ECU, and is one of 28 active NCAAFB coaches with 100-plus wins. Last year was a healthy 8-5 record, including 4-4 in the AAC. The Pirates lost a lot of players last year, including several to the NFL. In Houston's fifth year, he's one of the veteran coaches in this league, nut ECU is outside of the top 120 in offensive experience, and the schedule is ranked No. 65 by Phil Steele, which is very high for the AAC.

East Carolina football

East Carolina had a good spring and are looking to take it to the next level this fall (PHOTO CREDIT: East Carolina Athletics)

Last year's defense was strong, assisting in a bowl appearance. Notable off-season defensive additions are defensive back Rico Watkins, linebacker Dwight Johnson, and Rivals four-star DB Antoine Jackson. More of the highly rated prospects are from the defensive side. Though the Pirates will probably fall off from last year's 53rd-ranked defense, their run defense should stay strong.

On their schedule, the Pirates open Sept. 2 at Ann Arbor against a Michigan team picked to be first in the Big Team by media. Michigan will be a behemoth. Another tough nonconference opponent is in-state rival Appalachian State. ECU faces challenging road games in the middle of the season against UTSA and Navy, who has a history of defeating ECU. Luckily at the end of their schedule, the road games are winnable at Rice and another at FAU. Late in the season, the home schedule has SMU, Tulane, and Tulsa.  We project all these to be winning programs so late stumbles are certain, but how big a stumble?

This is a schedule situation where the "winnable" teams are on the road, and might hold on, but the home games are tough, tough, tough. ECU in particular could be hurt. Because of the tough games being at home, and the road games being lesser teams, the range of wins could be five to nine. But we're calling for a bowl game again, but a less prestigious bowl than last year.

Fan Notes: ECU's opener, Sept. 2, will be broadcast live nationally at 11 a.m. on Peacock.  Other known broadcast games are Sept. 9 versus Marshall on ESPNU, and Oct. 12 versus SMU on ESPN. The other games will be on ESPN+ per AAC media contract unless picked up by other media sources later. They play the home games at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.