East Carolina's August 30 season opener against North Carolina Central marks the beginning of its 2014 campaign. Even with big names on the nonconference schedule, the Pirates will aim to make an impact in their debut season in the American Athletic Conference.
In the three games following its opener, ECU will play South Carolina and Virginia Tech on the road before returning to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for a showdown against North Carolina. They're all games to look forward to, but none will have a bearing on the team's performance in the conference.
American commissioner Mike Aresco pegged ECU to rank among the best football teams in the conference—along with Houston, Cincinnati and reigning champions UCF. Let's take a look at the difficulty of each team's conference schedule.
ECU has two big conference games that stand out immediately—Cincinnati and UCF. The Pirates will have to play Cincinnati on the road, which is a challenge for any team seeing as the Bearcats finished 9-4 (6-2 American) last season.
Even though ECU gets to host the UCF for each side's final game of the season, it's not going to be an easy one. The Pirates vs. Knights rivalry dates back to the early 90s and the majority of it played out when both teams were members of Conference USA.
ECU leads the series 9-3, but UCF owns victories in two of the last three games. The two last met on October 4, 2012 and UCF claimed a decisive 40-20 win in Orlando. Blake Bortles threw for 269 yards and ran for another 62 while accounting for two touchdowns.
There are a few saving graces for the Pirates. The first is that they aren't scheduled to play Houston, who finished 8-5 (5-3 American). The other is that two of their road games are against South Florida and Temple, who combined for three conference wins last year.
UCF proved it could hang with the best last season by going undefeated in the American and defeating Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. It's only appropriate that the defending champions have one of the toughest schedules, right?
The Knights have the honor of playing ECU and Houston—two of the stronger teams in the conference—on the road. They also travel to East Hartford, Conn. to play UConn. Even though UConn only won three games in the conference last season, the trip from Florida to Connecticut is never an easy one.
Last season was an impressive one for UCF. The Knights are certainly challenged by the schedule they've been given this year.
Cincinnati's schedule is very much the opposite of UCF's. The Bearcats have the advantage of playing two of their tougher opponents at home in Paul Brown Stadium.
Even so, the Bearcats should find their last four games to be challenging. They host ECU before hitting the road to take on UConn in East Hartford and then Temple in Philadelphia. While those aren't particularly strong teams, three of Cincinnati's four losses last year came on the road. Finally, they return home to close out the season against Houston.
As always, there's a silver lining in that Cincinnati doesn't have to play UCF. Also, while it doesn't have any impact on the conference rankings, the Bearcats also have a pretty simple nonconference schedule with the exception of a road game against Ohio State.
Houston has its toughest conference games spread far apart. The Cougars open conference play at home with UCF and close it on the road against Cincinnati. Being at home may not provide much of an advantage against the Knights, who were undefeated when traveling last season. Also, Houston racked up three of its five losses at home last year.
The Cougars don't have the debuting Pirates on their schedule, which leaves the aforementioned UCF and Cincinnati games as their most daunting. What should prove to be most challenging is playing on the road against Southern Methodist a week prior to heading to Cincinnati. The good news for them is that's the only time in 2014 they'll play consecutive road games.