That label was slapped on this game a while ago, though. N.C. State arguably has more to prove now than the Pirates. The Wolfpack are winless in their conference while ECU boasts an ACC win it claimed in Chapel Hill.
This meeting will be the first encounter between ECU and N.C. State since 2010. Dominique Davis secured a 33-27 overtime victory for ECU with a one-yard keeper. What really sealed the game for the Pirates was Damon Magazu's end zone interception on a 3rd-and-12 play made during N.C. State's overtime possession.
At the time, Magazu was a true freshman making his first start. Magazu has three interceptions so far this season.
As always, turnovers will play a key role in the outcome of this game. The Pirates have won 11 of their last 12 outings when forcing at least two turnovers.
"All the stats, in NFL and college football, the team that gets the most turnovers usually wins," said defensive coordinator Rick Smith. "The way I talk to our kids about turnovers, we want to get at least three a game… if we get three [turnovers], the other team has three less chances to score and we just gave our team three more."
The Wolfpack offense could struggle to keep the ball out of the hands of ECU's defense. In three games since returning from a foot injury that sidelined him for five games this season, quarterback Brandon Mitchell has thrown six interceptions.
And ECU's offense will be dangerous enough without getting extra opportunities. The Pirates rank 11th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in points for with 41.5 per game. They've surpassed the 50-point plateau in three of their last four outings.
Carden has already amassed 3,320 passing yards and 29 touchdowns this season—10 of which he threw for in ECU's last two games.
Mitchell isn't guaranteed to start for N.C. State, though. The Wolfpack quarterback injured his ankle Nov. 9 against Duke, so unless it's fully healed, the Pirates could see Pete Thomas get the nod.
Thomas started last week against Duke and completed 22 of 33 passes for 207 yards—one of which was a 61-yard bomb—and a touchdown. N.C. State might actually prefer for Thomas to start since he's more of a passer than Mitchell, who is a dual-threat.
The Pirates have only allowed an average of three yards per carry this season. Mitchell's run game is usually perceived as a potent threat, but ECU's fifth-ranked rush defense could likely shut him down.
Injuries have been a recurring theme for N.C. State's season. The Wolfpack have lost a handful of key players on a team that wasn't all that deep to begin with.
"I would have to say injuries are No. 1," said N.C. State announcer Gary Hahn. "That's really hurt because this wasn't really a very deep team at the beginning of the season…Before the season, Logan Winkles, who is a very powerful full-back and a great blocker, was lost for the season with a knee injury."
"During the course of the season," he added, "the Wolfpack has lost its No. 1 deep threat at wide receiver, Bryan Underwood. He's out for the year. The free safety, Jarvis Byrd, is out as well and the secondary is not one that is real deep. All these injuries to key players have really put N.C. State back."
ECU has lost a handful of important players, too. The Pirates have been playing without a deep threat of their own in the form of Davon Grayson. The true freshman wide receiver caught three touchdowns in the season opener versus Old Dominion.
On top of that, senior offensive lineman Adhem Elsawi's eye injury makes him questionable for the game, which is a big loss for the front seven.
The difference is that the Pirates have had players step up for them. Isaiah Jones, another true freshman, has taken the opportunity that comes with increased play time and run with it. His growing chemistry with Carden has been one of ECU's biggest storylines of the past few weeks.
With injuries depleting the Wolfpack on both sides of the ball, it's going to be hard for N.C. State to keep up with ECU's potent offense and stiff defense. Add in the fact that proximity all but removes the home field advantage in Carter-Finley, and it's hard to see ECU leaving Raleigh with anything less than a decisive ninth win.
Kickoff is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Fans can catch the game on the ACC Network, Pirate IMG Network or online on ESPN 3.
Prediction: ECU: 45, N.C. State: 20