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PIRATE PREVIEW: Which game is the hardest?

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East Carolina's Holton Ahlers runs the ball during their game against Central Florida on Oct. 20, 2018. (Molly Mathis/The Daily Reflector)

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, August 24, 2019

East Carolina begins its first season under coach Mike Houston one week from today and is aiming to finish better than its three straight 3-9 records from 2016-18. The Pirates haven’t had a winning record since going 8-5 in 2014 under Ruffin McNeill.

Where are the wins in this year’s schedule? Here is a breakdown of the Pirates’ opponents listed in order of game difficulty:

1. at UCF, Oct. 19

This is the most talented opponent East Carolina will face during the regular season, and the game is on the road. UCF hasn’t lost a home game since Nov. 19, 2016.

The Pirates trailed 42-14 at halftime in their last trip to Orlando, which was in 2017 when the Knights were working on a perfect 13-0 season. UCF posted a 25-1 combined overall record the last two years. This simply is ECU’s most unlikely day for a victory.

The Pirates get a long break after hosting Temple on Oct. 3 on a Thursday night, but the Knights also have a bye week before playing ECU.

2. Cincinnati, Nov. 2

If UCF doesn’t win a third straight American Athletic Conference championship, look out for Cincinnati, as the Bearcats are physical, talented and on the rise under third-year coach Luke Fickell.

The Pirates get this one at home, but it also comes after a grueling October schedule of playing Temple, UCF, South Florida and then the Bearcats. East Carolina leads the all-time series 13-9, but it has swung the Bearcats’ way recently. Cincy’s 56-6 thrashing of the Pirates a year ago ended up being Scottie Montgomery’s final game as head coach.

3. at N.C. State, Aug. 31

Given the turnover on the Wolfpack’s offensive unit, including the departure of its starting quarterback, star center and offensive coordinator all in the same offseason, facing N.C. State to begin the season will look much different than playing NCSU later in the year. The Pirates catch N.C. State at the right time.

Motivation also is clearly on ECU’s side with a first-year coach, some newfound optimism and its last game being a 58-3 rout by the Wolfpack in Raleigh during the final week of the 2018 regular season. Quarterback Holton Ahlers did not play in that game.

The Pirates should be more competitive at Carter-Finley Stadium this year. Could more competitive turn into a season-opening upset?

4. at Navy, Sept. 14

What makes this one especially challenging for ECU is Navy’s schedule. Navy begins its season at home against Holy Cross and then has a bye week, hosts the Pirates in Week 3 and immediately gets another bye week. Veteran coach Ken Niumatalolo and his staff should have no excuse to not be completely locked in on defeating the Pirates and starting 1-0 in the AAC.

The Midshipmen are always a difficult opponent early in a season, even after their 3-10 record from a year ago. Navy also is 5-1 all-time against the Pirates.

ECU’s last game against Navy was a 66-31 loss to the Middies in Greenville in 2016. Navy was an 8-point favorite in that matchup.

5. Temple, Oct. 3

Many Pirate fans view this game as the most attractive home contest of the season. It’s Thursday night and there will be ESPN coverage of an important game for ECU as it faces an AAC East divisional opponent.

The problem? Temple has owned East Carolina in recent years. All five AAC games in this series were won by the Owls. The last three scores were 49-6, 34-10 and 37-10.

There is probably not a more intriguing game on the Pirates’ schedule. A Thursday night home win over Temple would be a big statement for new direction.

6. at SMU, Nov. 9

SMU and ECU have the same two bye weeks (Oct. 12 and Nov. 16), so they both will be looking for a key late-season win heading into an off week. Gerald Ford Stadium is not typically a difficult venue on opponents, but it will be homecoming for the Mustangs.

The Pirates also play at the Mustangs the week after their most difficult three-game stretch of facing UCF, South Florida and Cincinnati in consecutive weeks. Mark this as a sneaky tough game for ECU.

7. at Old Dominion, Sept. 28

Every team plays a Super Bowl.

In 2018 for Old Dominion, it was a shocking win over Virginia Tech. Now the Monarchs are set to open their new S.B. Ballard Stadium with ECU as a prime target to beat in front of a home crowd. The Monarchs’ season-opener is at home against Norfolk State and their second home opponent is ECU, giving their team and fans plenty to be pumped about in welcome in the Pirates.

Like the SMU game, this is a victory that East Carolina will have to earn on the road.

8. South Florida, Oct. 26

The Pirates’ 20-13 loss at South Florida a year ago was one of their better showings during league action. USF also is ECU’s homecoming opponent for this year, which should naturally add to the attendance figure and atmosphere at Dowdy-Ficklen.

Another factor working against the Bulls is it comes to Greenville one week after playing at Navy. It can be difficult to transition from facing Navy’s unique triple-option offense to a conventional offense, especially on the road against a good quarterback.

9. at Connecticut, Nov. 23

UConn has been the worst team in the AAC and that is expected to continue. Still, the Pirates’ last game in Storrs, Conn., in 2017 was only a 41-38 victory that featured late-game drama.

ECU is 0-8 in road games since that win over the Huskies. Any aspirations by the Pirates for a winning season or a bowl game will likely require a late-season road victory versus lowly UConn.

10. Tulsa, Nov. 30

Despite all its struggles in recent years, East Carolina has won consecutive Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium season-finales.

Like Connecticut last year and Cincinnati in 2017, this matchup against Tulsa to finish the regular season should be viewed as a winnable game for the Pirates. It will be senior day and they will be looking to finish strong against a fellow team not expected to compete for the AAC title.

11. William & Mary, Sept. 21

Notable at first glance is that William & Mary lost 51-0 to James Madison in 2018. Most of the JMU coaches from a year ago are now with the Pirates.

ECU faces two Football Championship Subdivision opponents this season and they should both be wins by the Pirates.

12. Gardner-Webb, Sept. 7

It is ECU’s home-opener at new-look Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium featuring TowneBank Tower with a first-year Pirate coach in Houston who already has instilled confidence in many Pirate fans. A favorable kickoff time also is slated for 6 p.m.

The home team cruises to victory. Gardner-Webb finished 3-8 in 2018, including a 45-6 loss to North Carolina A&T and 72-7 defeat to Appalachian State.

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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