At the end of the 2012 season, Central Florida finished its final Conference USA season with 10 wins and a victory in the Beef O'Brady's Bowl. In 2013, its debut season in the American Athletic Conference, the Knights, picked fourth in the AAC preseason poll, won the league and finished their season with a 12-1 record and Fiesta Bowl win.
Last season, East Carolina's last in Conference USA, the Pirates won 10 games and the Beef O'Brady's Bowl. East Carolina, coincidentally picked fourth in the 2014 AAC poll, has some similarities with the Knights of a year ago, but whether or not they replicate UCF's success will be up to them.
"I just feel like we're going to come out and play hard every game we play, whatever happens, happens, but we're going to perform, we're going to prepare that week," senior receiver Justin Hardy said at AAC media day in Newport, R.I. on Tuesday. "The mentality going into this season is we want to be on top."
Coach Ruffin McNeill, entering his fifth season, followed UCF's run in 2013.
"Coach [George] O'Leary beating the Big 12 opponent in the bowl game did not surprise me," he said. "Our team has played UCF three times in our four years before this year, and every time it's been one of those hard-hitting football games. That win did not surprise us, as well as some other great coaches in our league."
McNeill said he's been excited for the AAC since last summer, and his team is confident.
"Everybody knows what we work for," said senior linebacker Brandon Williams. "Working hard during summer, it's going to pay off in the end. We're going to have opportunities to play good teams and get a good chance to win games and do what we have to do to win games and be successful and bring home the conference… Our main objective is to win the conference."
On offense the Pirates lost leading rusher Vintavious Cooper, who ran for 1,193 yards and 13 touchdowns, but return senior quarterback Shane Carden and Hardy, their leading receiver. Hardy caught 114 passes for 1,284 yards and eight touchdowns. Carden, who caught a touchdown pass in the bowl win, threw for 4,139 yards, 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Carden, a two-year starter from Houston, scored 10 touchdowns on the ground as well. UConn plays the Pirates Oct. 23 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
"It's a great place to play, our fans are second to none," Hardy said. "Every game we play is going to be a packed house, probably sold out, no matter who we're playing. That's great, the environment and atmosphere in Greenville, N.C., is great for a football town. Everybody does football on Saturday. They take off jobs to go watch football."
East Carolina led non-AQ BCS conference members in average attendance last season with 43,985.
"Come to Greenville on a Thursday or Friday or Saturday, you will see excitement unmatched," McNeill said.
UConn fans making the trip for the Thursday night game in October can expect an inspired team.
"With our fans showing us love on the field, it makes us play harder for them and play harder for East Carolina University," Williams said.
McNeill, who played at ECU, bleeds purple and gold.
"It's been three times as much, as a student, as an athlete, as a coach," he said. "Joy is three times as much."
His players take notice.
"Coach Ruffin is a great guy, real laid back," said Hardy. "Him being able to say he went to ECU, played football for ECU, that's even better for us."
McNeill, like all coaches this time of year, can't wait to get started.
"We're looking forward to the season," he said. "We're looking forward to the first game. I'm looking to the kids reporting. We'll take it day-to-day, rep-by-rep. We'll attack the whole season in that manner."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun