Mid-major Report: ECU making case as one of the best teams in North Carolina
Typically, football in North Carolina is competitive across all levels. Appalachian State was an outright dynasty in the FCS for a long time. The Triangle teams (UNC, Duke and NC State) and Wake Forest have each taken turns at or near the top of the ACC. And in Greenville, East Carolina has fought tooth and nail to get noticed in the conference realignment shuffle. Entering 2013, the Pirates were hoping that their last hurrah in Conference USA would give them something to build on as they prepared to join the American Athletic Conference next season.
After a convincing 55-31 win over the Tar Heels on Saturday, East Carolina's first victory at Chapel Hill's Kenan Stadium in almost four decades, the Pirates (3-1) appear to have plenty of momentum heading into 2014. They came out of the gates with a purpose, racing to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, and a 28-10 advantage by the end of the half. North Carolina's defense had been suspect early in the season, giving up an average of 25 points in its first three games, but it hadn't been completley depantsed until it played the Pirates. ECU gained 603 total yards and made 36 first downs. Quarterback Shane Carden passed for 376 yards and had a hand in six touchdowns.
The four ACC schools in North Carolina have started the year .500 (9-9), and all four teams have glaring weaknesses. The Duke and UNC defenses are porous, while Wake Forest is a disaster on both sides of the ball -- the Demon Deacons (2-3) already look deflated. There's a good chance that NC State is the best team in the state. Under coach Dave Doeren, the Wolfpack seem to be coming into their own offensively.
But don't sleep on the Pirates. East Carolina's only loss came in a 15-10 slugfest against Virginia Tech and its smothering defense on Sept. 14. Coach Ruffin McNeil's team is about to enter the lighter portion of its schedule, and there's a very good chance that the Pirates will head into a Nov. 23 clash at NC State with at least seven wins (and possibly nine). By then, we'll really know where the balance of power in North Carolina lies.
• Buffalo: There are two directions that a season can go for teams that load up on difficult nonconference games. A team can get pummeled and go into a tailspin, or it can take something away from tough losses to elite teams and use the experience to its advantage. The Bulls' hope was always that road games at Ohio State and Baylor would strengthen its resolve, and if Saturday's 41-12 win over UConn is any indication, Buffalo is ready for MAC play.
It took five overtimes for the Bulls to beat Stony Brook on Sept. 14, but after a bye, they decimated the Huskies and put an end to coach Paul Pasqualoni's tenure in Storrs. Buffalo has an all-conference linebacker in Khalil Mack (31 tackles, 3.5 sacks, six tackles for loss, one interception), an improving quarterback in sophomore Joe Licata (769 passing yards, seven touchdowns, four interceptions) and a star receiver in Alex Neutz (27 receptions, 414 yards, four touchdowns). Now, the schedule sets up favorably for the Bulls. Buffalo has at least four games remaining in which it will be favored (against Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, Miami (Ohio) and UMass), and if it just takes care of business in those games, the Bulls will be bowl eligible for the first time since 2008.
• Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward: Fans knew coming into the year that Huskies safety Jimmie Ward was one of the best defensive players in the MAC. But he's taking it one step further. Ward is making a case as one of the best defensive players in the nation. He reeled in his third interception of the season, which he returned for a 62-yard touchdown, in NIU's 55-24 win over Purdue on Saturday. He also has 39 tackles through four games. Ward is the anchor to a Huskies' defense that has now won 16 of its last 17 games. It's no coincidence that NIU is ranked in the Coaches' Poll for the first time this season.
• Nevada: After starting the year 1-2 with a pair of blowout losses to UCLA and Florida State, the Wolf Pack have rallied to put together a two-game winning streak against Mountain West foes. Nevada beat Hawaii 31-9 before edging Air Force 45-42 with two touchdowns late in the fourth quarter. Cody Fajardo has gotten overshadowed a bit this fall by all the other good quarterbacks in the Mountain West (Fresno State's Derek Carr, Utah State's Chuckie Keeton, Wyoming's Brett Smith and Boise State's Joe Southwick), but the junior deserves recognition. Fajardo has completed more than 70 percent of his passes without an interception. He's also the team's second-leading rusher with 223 yards and five touchdowns.
• Miami (Ohio): Perhaps things have to get worse before they get better for the RedHawks, or perhaps this team, which has yet to score more than 14 points in a game, has officially bottomed out. The next three weeks (vs. Central Michigan, at UMass, vs. Akron) are Miami's best (and likely only) chances at victories. From 1986 to 2010, coach Don Treadwell was an assistant at such schools as Stanford, Boston College and Michigan State, and he has learned from some pretty good coaches along the way, including Jim Tressel and Mark Dantonio. His RedHawks seemed close to breaking through after 4-8 campaigns in '11 and '12, but the start to this season is a major step back.
• Louisiana Tech: The Bulldogs lost their third consecutive game, this time in a pitiful 35-16 showing against Army. Now Louisiana Tech is almost lucky to be backing into C-USA play. There's no way the cupboard was left completely bare after the Bulldogs won 17 games in two seasons under coach Sonny Dykes, and it doesn't seem as though new coach Skip Holtz has the best grip on this program. (It also looks like Holtz left one heck of a mess at South Florida.) With a bit more spark and life, the Bulldogs have some winnable games remaining (FIU, Southern Miss), but they need to improve. Fast. • Western Michigan: I'm as big an advocate of rowing the boat as anyone, but the growing pains have been rough in Kalamazoo to date. As mentioned above, playing a tough nonconference slate can help or hurt a non-AQ squad, and the Broncos seem to have fallen into the latter camp. After losses to Michigan State, Northwestern and Iowa, Western Michigan's confidence is in flux, and getting trampled 32-14 by previously reeling Kent State certainly didn't help matters. First-year coach P.J. Fleck has big plans for the Broncos, but he might have to readjust and start setting some incremental goals for his team to keep the season from going off the rails.