East Carolina Pirates, AAC competing with nation’s top teams

McNeill and Carden: East Carolina’s Finest Hidden Gems

NCAA Football: North Carolina at East Carolina

East Carolina Pirates wide receiver Trevon Brown (88) is congratulated by teammate quarterback Shane Carden (5) after his second-quarter touchdown at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

(C+P) — Want to one up your colleagues? Of course you do. Tomorrow go to the office and tell people the AAC, American Athletic Conference, is home to some of the nation’s most promising football programs. Then watch them as they shake their heads in amusement while undoubtedly internally rolling their eyes and laughing at your complete lack of football knowledge.

They will then predictably ask ‘Do you mean the ACC?’ in a patronizing tone, to which you can calmly shake your head no, causing even more amusing looks to cross their faces. This is where you get to pull out your own big smug smile and explain to them how much you truly do know about college football.

What should you tell them? You could start with the fact that in the conference’s first true year of existence (successor of the Big East Conference in 2013) they produced a BCS Bowl winner as Central Florida beat the heavily favored Baylor 52-42 in the 2014 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. Then subtly, or not so subtly, remind them that four players from the AAC conference, including two of the top three quarterbacks, were taken in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

It was a fluke they will say. Louisville is no longer even in the conference another will pipe in. Someone who knows what the AAC is might even sarcastically note that Southern Methodist is in the conference as if that rules out the chance that any other team could be any good.

What will your counter be? You could go one of many ways but for simplicity’s sake, the newest AAC member East Carolina should be your answer. While Blake Bortles and UCF carried the conference to glory last year, the early indications are even stronger for the Pirates to do the same behind their own star quarterback Shane Carden.

East Carolina Pirates head coach Ruffin McNeill looks on during the game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The Pirates won, 70-41. (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)
East Carolina Pirates head coach Ruffin McNeill looks on during the game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The Pirates won, 70-41. (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

Carden, who is arguably one of the nation’s longest best kept secrets at the quarterback position, could be on a similar rise as Bortles who shot from obscurity to the number three overall pick in the NFL Draft last season. Barely anyone outside of the Eastern Carolina region knew who Carden was before the start of the season, but five weeks in, the talk of him being a dark horse for the Heisman is gaining ground, and oh what a dark horse he would be.

“He comes and he is on the scout team for two years,” ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill explained of the former ECU walk on. “He played tight end, running back – you can ask John Wiley [associate head coach] – everywhere. Even guard some days. Didn’t flinch. Didn’t whine. Didn’t pout.”

Fast forward a few years, and he is one of the nation’s leading passers with 1,469 yards in ECU’s first four games. The most impressive of all being the team’s 70-41 blowout victory over North Carolina, where he threw for 438 yards and four touchdowns while also adding two scores on the ground. Still not impressed? The senior quarterback also led his team to an upset win over then-ranked No. 17 Virginia Tech on the road. I might add Virginia Tech, like North Carolina, is an Atlantic Coast Conference team.

Are your colleagues still skeptical? Fine. ECU is also home to one of the best coaching staffs in America led by the under-appreciated and underestimated, Ruffin McNeill.

McNeill is a former Pirate himself, starring in the late 1970s as a defensive back for the team. After serving as the defensive coordinator at Texas Tech for ten years under Mike Leach, McNeill was hired by his alma mater in 2010 and has quickly built ECU into a contender. After five games in 2014, McNeill has not only led the Pirates into the Top 25 rankings, but into the national spotlight as well.

“It’s an honor because it gives the nation a chance to see our players,” said McNeill. “Now the nation will see our university, and not just the football part but the entire program and the entire university.”

Humble as always, but the truth is the nation will not only be introduced to the school and the program, but to McNeill himself. Take over his alma mater? Check. Bring in big-time recruits? Check. Lead ECU back to relevance and the Top 25? Check. Up next? Teaching his players to play with all the newfound attention and respect, learning how to win as the hunted and no longer the hunter.

Sounds like McNeill got a head start on that lesson as well.

“Coach Ruff told me this two years ago. When you win, people want you to write a book. When you lose, they question whether you can read one,” his quarterback Carden said. “It does hold true, as funny as it is.”

It is humorous wisdom such as this that has shaped Carden and his teammates into what looks to be yet another power out of the AAC. The question remains however, can they can put these words into action? It is one thing to recite what their coach has told them, but it is another to show it on the field.

The Pirates season is theirs for the taking; they did their work in the non-conference taking down both Virginia Tech and North Carolina. Now they have to take care of business in conference, in games they will be favored to win each and every week. If they win out, it is more than feasible to think they could be in the inaugural final four-playoff field come January.

So tell that to your coworkers and wait for their reaction. However, do it quick, it will not be long before Coach McNeill, Carden and the Pirates, of yes the American Athletic Conference, take the nation by storm.

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