The Orlando Sentinel has ranked all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. We’ll take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 120 to our projected No. 1 team. We will not be including the four teams the NCAA lists as still reclassifying to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
Today at No. 82: East Carolina
Coach: Ruffin McNeill (11-14 entering third season at East Carolina)
2011 record: 5-7 (4-4 in Conference USA, third in Eastern Division)
Look back: East Carolina racked up 35 turnovers, the highest number of turnovers in the nation. Predictably, it was tough for the Pirates to get over the ill-timed turnovers and the team fell short of earning a bowl invitation.
The team opened the season with a 56-37 loss at South Carolina and a 17-10 loss to Virginia Tech. The Pirates bounced back with a 28-23 win over UAB before facing another pair of tough games. East Carolina lost 35-20 to North Carolina and 56-3 at Houston.
The team then recorded a 35-17 win at Memphis, a 38-35 win at Navy and a 34-13 win over Tulane. East Carolina lost 48-28 to eventual conference champion Southern Miss and 22-17 at UTEP. The Pirates held on for a 38-31 win over UCF.
East Carolina needed a win in the regular season finale to become bowl eligible. The Pirates put up a tough fight, but ultimately turnovers would once again haunt the Pirates. Starting quarterback Dominique Davis tossed three interceptions and the Pirates fumbled the ball once. East Carolina ultimately lost 34-27 in overtime at Marshall, ending the Pirates’ season.
It was a frustrating season for a team that showed potential in spurts but could not get over its own trouble taking care of the football. Davis was a dynamic playmaker for the Pirates, thriving under Ruffin McNeill’s pass-heavy, high octane offensive attack. He ranked No. 21 in the nation in passing offense, racking up 283.08 yards per game.
Offensive starters lost/returning: 4/7
Defensive starters lost/returning: 4/7
Key losses: QB Dominique Davis, OT Steven Baker, WR Michael Bowman, WR Lance Lewis, CB Derek Blacknall, CB Emanuel Davis, SS Bradley Jacobs, LB Cliff Perryman, K Michael Barbour, P Ben Ryan, DS William Smith.
Top returnees: WR Andrew Bodenheimer, WR Justin Hardy, OG Will Simmons, NT Michael Brooks, LB Jeremy Grove, DE Derrell Johnson, FS Damon Magazu, DE Matt Milner
Strengths: The Pirates return 70 percent of its lettermen, including defensive players who contributed to 70 percent of the unit’s production last season. East Carolina will have seven offensive starters and seven defensive starters back in the lineup, including some strong players on the offensive and defensive lines. Receivers Andrew Bodenheimer and Justin Hardy should thrive contributing to McNeill’s offense and have the potential to put up big numbers for the team.
Weaknesses: The Pirates relied heavily on Davis. The team thrived during his stronger games and struggled when he tried to force too many passes, contributing heavily to the season-altering turnovers. Junior Rio Johnson, senior Brad Wornick, redshirt freshman Cody Keith and sophomore Shane Carden are still in the running for the starting quarterback job. The race will likely be narrowed to Johnson and Wornick, and Johnson has the best shot of winning the job. It’s tough for a team to go through offseason workouts without a clearly defined starting quarterback and offensive leader, especially at a program that relies on offensive fireworks. It may be tough for the new starter to avoid the same pitfalls Davis endured, successfully stepping on the gas to push the tempo of the offense but racking up a lot of turnovers along the way.
The Pirates’ defense needs to improve to help take pressure off its offense. East Carolina ranked No. 97 out of 120 teams nationally in scoring defense, giving up 32.25 points per game. The team’s rushing defense was ranked No. 81, allowing 174.17 yards per game.
Outlook: The Pirates play a tough non-conference schedule. Even the team’s Football Championship Subdivision game is challenging, with East Carolina facing off against national powerhouse Appalachian State. While other Conference USA teams have been through a lot of transition and Davis was one of many talented senior quarterbacks to exhaust their eligibility, the Pirates still have to prove they can get past the turnover bug, play tougher defense and find ways to win close games.
Sept. 1 Appalachian State
Sept. 8 At South Carolina
Sept. 15 At Southern Miss
Sept. 22 At North Carolina
Sept. 29 UTEP
Oct. 6 At UCF
Oct. 13 Memphis
Oct. 20 At UAB
Oct. 27 Navy
Nov. 3 Houston
Nov. 17 At Tulane
Nov. 24 Marshall
Rest of the countdown: