ECU is Virginia Tech's most intriguing nonconference game

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This week's American Athletic Conference preseason football gathering reinforced two thoughts: The league's annual Newport, R.I., clambake towers above all media days, and East Carolina is Virginia Tech's most intriguing non-conference game.

Not the most challenging, mind you. The Hokies' Sept. 6 date at Ohio State is their most difficult road test since 2007 at LSU.

But as revealing as that evening in The Horseshoe might be, Tech figures to be a sizable underdog. Indeed, the Golden Nugget in Vegas last month declared the Hokies early 18-point pups against the Buckeyes.

Conversely, Tech-ECU a week later in Blacksburg likely will be far more competitive.

Yes, the Hokies are 10-1 versus the Pirates in the last 20 seasons, and sure, coordinator Bud Foster's defense smothered ECU's spread offense last year and in 2011. But few would be surprised if this game becomes a struggle, or if these Pirates make a large splash in their inaugural American Athletic season.

"East Carolina probably should be the team picked to win this conference," Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville told media in Newport after his Bearcats were tabbed preseason faves. "They went and destroyed a North Carolina team that beat us at the end of the year. They're well coached, they throw the ball around and they've got a quarterback that is very dynamic."

A 55-31 road thumping of the Tar Heels and 37-20 Beef "O" Brady's Bowl victory over Ohio highlighted the Pirates' 10-3 farewell to Conference USA. They enter an 11-team American Athletic, a.k.a., the old Big East, whose 2013 champion, Central Florida, defeated Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl.

East Carolina finished behind Cincinnati, Central Florida and former Conference USA rival Houston in the preseason American Athletic poll, but as Tuberville noted, arrives with a considerable arsenal.

Reflecting not only the spread's pitch-and-catch nature but also his talents, Shane Carden completed 70.5 percent of his passes as a junior last season, second nationally, and threw for 33 touchdowns with only 10 interceptions. His go-to receiver, Justin Hardy, is the Bowl Subdivision's active leader in career catches (266) and receiving yards (3,047).

The battery mates led an offense that averaged 40.2 points, eighth nationally, and 468.2 yards. ECU scored at least 24 points and gained at least 312 yards in every outing except …

In the season's third game, the Pirates lost 15-10 to visiting Virginia Tech. They produced a paltry 204 yards, and Carden threw three picks. Two years earlier against the Hokies, ECU was even more ineffective, managing 112 yards, minus-15 rushing, in a 17-10 setback.

Safe to say, Conference USA's defenses were a step slower than the Hokies' and that Foster knows his way around a greaseboard. Still, the Hokies were fortunate to survive both games.

Whether the Pirates are similarly threatening Sept. 13 will hinge on two questions. Can they sustain last season's defensive improvement with only three returning starters? Do they have a credible replacement for tailback Vintavius Cooper?

ECU allowed 24.8 points per game last year, 6.8 fewer than in 2012. But the defense lost seven veterans, and in February versatile lineman Terrell Stanley (seven sacks in 2013) sustained injuries in an automobile accident that will sideline him until at least next summer.

Cooper rushed for 1,193 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior last season, and Breon Allen (311 yards) and Chris Hairston (186) are the top candidates to replace him.

The Pirates enter the American at a curious time. Under the Bowl Championship Series postseason structure that ended last season, the league's champ was guaranteed a major bowl bid. But in the College Football Playoff that debuts this year, only the top-rated winner among the American, Mountain West, Mid-American, Sun Belt and Conference USA is assured a prime postseason slot.

Meanwhile, the champions of the ACC, Southeastern, Big 12, Big Ten and Pacific 12, the so-called power five, are locked into major bowls.

"We're not going to take a backseat to anyone," American commissioner Mike Aresco said in Newport. "We see the landscape as five plus one, and we're knocking on the door. Our goal is to be in the conversation as the sixth power conference. I believe by virtue of our performance that we already are. As I said, we're knocking on the door, and we will eventually knock it down."

With consecutive September games against South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia Tech, ECU certainly has an opportunity to aid that effort.

"East Carolina is going to have a huge advantage in our conference (compared to being in C-USA)," Aresco told ESPN last winter. "I think they're going to be the next guys, to be honest, similar to UCF. Everything's in place. … 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."

Pirates coach Ruffin McNeill, an ECU graduate, welcomes the pressure.

"The expectations within our office and among the players," he said in Newport, "(are) higher than anyone can put on (us from) the outside."

David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.

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