Summer Journal: Non-Conference Scheduling
Several of the East Carolina football team’s finer moments in its proud history have taken place with the Pirates playing the role of “giant killers,” who were out to defeat some of the country’s top-tier programs in non-conference matchups. There was Jeff Blake’s go-ahead two-point conversion in the last minute to beat Pittsburgh in 1991. The come-from-behind win against No. 9 Miami in 1999, which took place at Carter-Finley Stadium in the wake of Hurricane Floyd. And who could forget the back-to-back wins against ranked opponents — including a 24-3 drubbing of No. 8 West Virginia — to start the 2008 season? These wins put Greenville, N.C. on the map and gave the program an identity. However, this aggressive philosophy of non-conference scheduling has seen more failure than success. ECU was 11-33 against non-Conference USA opponents in the decade prior to last season. Although 2013 seemed to be an exception to these struggles —ECU was 4-1 in non-conference games and beat N.C. State and North Carolina in the same season for the first time ever — it was just the Pirates’ first winning non-conference record since achieving a 3-2 mark in 2000; further proving it to be an anomaly. That is, unless they can do it again this season. Once again, the non-conference schedule will be difficult. ECU will travel to Virginia Tech and South Carolina, and then host UNC after opening its season against what appears to be a mismatched North Carolina Central club. The only difference is that unlike last season, where ECU were heavy favorites in nearly ever Conference USA game it played, the Pirates have bolstered their league competition with their upgrade into the American Athletic Conference this summer. Instead of preparing for Florida International, UAB and Middle Tennessee, ECU will now be tested with games against the likes of UCF, Houston and Cincinnati. Granted, most of the non-conference games scheduled for this season and even next year were planned far before ECU knew its place in conference realignment or that even Jeff Compher would be the school’s Director of Athletics. But since taking over, Compher has shown few signs of altering this aggressive mentality of scheduling. Earlier this year, ECU agreed to a single-game contract to face the Florida Gators in Gainesville, Fla. next September, joining its already scheduled non-conference games against Virginia Tech and Brigham Young University. It goes further. The Pirates are set to face N.C. State, Virginia Tech and South Carolina in 2016; BYU, Virginia Tech and West Virginia in 2017; UNC and Virginia Tech in 2018; and Virginia Tech and South Carolina in 2019. Considering the framework of the new College Football Playoff, teams outside the “Power Five” conferences will likely need to finish the year undefeated or, at most, with one or two losses in order to receive an invitation to the top-tier bowl games. So why make the path even more difficult along the way? Think about some of the non-automatic-qualifier schools that competed in Bowl Championship Series games over the last decade: particularly, Boise State and TCU. Prior to joining to the Big 12, TCU took care of business against Mountain West Conference opponents without scheduling many of the nearby Big 12 schools. And the winning eventually paid off with the Horn Frogs appearing in back-to-back BCS games — culminating with a Rose Bowl victory against Wisconsin in 2010. Boise State laid down this blueprint a few years year before this with its monumental upset of Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl and they defeated TCU in the same bowl game in 2009. The Broncos still remain in the Mountain West Conference. There’s no question that the collection of teams in the American Conference is talented enough for ECU to make its league games a priority and play lesser programs out of conference. However, this would require ECU to break away from the “giant killer” image it created in the 1990s and realize that its no longer a small fish in the fabric of college football. But there have been no signs to suggest that this will happen any time soon.
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