East Carolina: 2014's UCF Knights?

There are several similarities to this year's ECU football team and last season's UCF Knights that went 12-1 and won the Fiesta Bowl.

Are the 2014 Pirates this year's UCF Knights? Can they be a team that bursts onto the national scene and adds their name to the collection of college football's exclusive club of elite teams?


Of course, we won't know the answer to those questions until games are played, but it's nearly impossible to ignore some of the comparisons between the two teams.

The Knights followed a 10-win season — their last in Conference USA — and a Beef ‘O' Brady's Bowl victory in 2012 with a 12-1 record in the American Athletic Conference that culminated with an upset win over Baylor in last season's Fiesta Bowl.

Now that sounds awfully familiar: ECU went 10-3 and won the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl in 2013 as the school wrapped up its membership with Conference USA.

But it goes even deeper than that.

Prior to Blake Bortles' breakout junior campaign that opened the eyes of NFL scouts and led to him becoming the third overall pick in the NFL Draft, he tossed 25 touchdown passes and rushed for an additional eight scores in his first season as UCF's starting quarterback.

East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden achieved similar marks in 2013, passing for a school-record 4,139 yards and 33 touchdowns; meanwhile, scrambling for 10 scores in his first full season as the Pirates' starter.

Both quarterbacks are noticeably stocky, yet mobile enough to be threats in the red zone and play strikingly similar brands of football. Also, Bortles (6'4, 230 poounds) and Carden (6'2, 221 pounds) are comparable in height and weight.

So will Carden be East Carolina's first top 10 pick in next year's draft? Okay, okay, let's not get too far ahead of ourselves (especially with next year's draft pool likely to include Oregon's Marcus Mariota, UCLA's Brett Hundley and Florida State's Heisman Trophy winner, Jameis Winston).

But is it too crazy?

American Commissioner Mike Aresco doesn't seem to think so, naming Carden specifically as a Heisman candidate this spring. And when asked about what kind of an immediate impact, if any, the Pirates could have in their inaugural year in the American, Aresco said, "East Carolina is going to have a huge advantage in our conference. I think they're going to be the next guys, to be honest, similar to UCF."

However, ECU's schedule this fall is far from a cakewalk. After its home opener against North Carolina Central, the Pirates will tackle a pair of daunting road games at Virginia Tech and South Carolina, before returning home to face North Carolina — Side note: UCF's lone loss in 2013 was at the hands of South Carolina.

As for league matchups, there are two on the schedule that could potentially hold a lot of weight.

ECU will travel up north to face Cincinnati on Nov. 13. The Bearcats are legitimate contenders to win the American in 2014, finishing 9-4 last season and having won at least eight games in seven of the last eight years.

Three weeks later, the Pirates host the defending-champion Knights on a nationally televised stage Dec. 4 to close the regular season. And as the old saying goes, to be the champs, you have to beat the champs.

After all, UCF did.

Louisville was one of college football's preseason darlings last fall after quarterback Teddy Bridgewater carved up the Florida Gators in the previous Sugar Bowl. But in a home game in mid-October, the Cardinals tripped up against the Knights, 38-35, and UCF never looked back.

So, to reemphasize, I am not telling you to go ahead and book your flights to Arizona for next year's Fiesta Bowl — especially since the equivalent to the Knights' BCS Bowl win in January is different now that the BCS has given way to a new college football playoff.

But it's never too early to begin recognizing some of the stars that appear to be aligning in the Pirates' favor.

"Everything's in place," Aresco said of ECU. "They've got a Heisman candidate, they've got just some tremendous players and I think they're going to make a mark quickly because they've never had this kind of TV exposure."

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