Florida’s first game of the season should be no problem. It’s what happens in games two through twelve that will define their season.
And that stretch starts with a (sort of) familiar foe.
EAST CAROLINA PIRATES
Coach: Ruffin McNeil, 6th year (37-27)
2014 record: 8-5, lost Birmingham Bowl to Florida
Last meeting: Florida 28, East Carolina 20 (2015)
All time series: Florida, 2-0
The skinny: East Carolina is a respectable American Conference team that’s found some success over the past several years. The problem is that the Pirates lose several of their key offensive players from last year’s 8-5 team, so 2015 figures to be a rebuilding year for them. But Ruffin McNeill has built a real program at ECU, which means that they’re a legitimate threat to slap you silly if you mess around no matter what type of year it is for them. Just ask Virginia Tech about what happened the week after they knocked off eventual national champion Ohio State 35-21 in Columbus.
Returning starters: 6
Ruffin McNeill is a Mike Leach student through and through; thus, you may see some resemblance of Leach’s high flying offense. But while the style of offense will be exciting, the offense suffers heavy losses: QB Shane Carden, leading rusher Breon Allen, leading receiver Justin Hardy and second leading receiver Cam Worthy all need to be replaced.
But that’s not to say there isn’t any talent waiting to step up. Kurt Benkert, Blake Kemp and Cody Keith will battle for the starting QB job, and while Benkert appears to be ahead now, this will be something to watch for in the weeks leading up to the game. Benkert throws a very nice deep ball, so Florida’s secondary better be ready. Allen will be missed in the running game, but Chris Hairston, Marquez Grayson and Anthony Scott combined for over 1,000 yards on the ground last year despite playing in a pass happy offense and despite all playing behind Allen. And the offensive line should be solid again, returning four of five starters from last year.
UPDATE August 31: An injury to Kurt Benkert means that Blake Kemp, a dual threat QB, will be the starting quarterback against Florida.
The problems for ECU could come with their receiving corps. They do get their third leading receiver, Isaiah Jones, back. But after that, the WR depth chart drops off into a deep abyss in terms of production. Again, there’s plenty of talent between Devon Grayson, Jimmy Williams (who had a 66 yard catch and run in the Birmingham Bowl) and Trevon Brown, but the contributions they’ve made to this point has been minimal.
Offensive Grade: C+. Don’t get me wrong, there’s certainly some talent on this roster. But assuming the Florida defense is half of what it’s hyped up to be, they’ll give ECU fits all day.
Returning starters: 4
Leave it to East Carolina to let a Will Muschamp offense actually look good. In last year’s Birmingham Bowl, Florida hit four plays of 20 yards or longer, including a bubble screen to Ahmad Fulwood that went 86 yards for the knockout punch touchdown. That defense loses seven starters (though it does return several key reserves) from a rather shaky unit in 2014, and thus has a lot of work to do.
The good news for ECU is that their defensive line should be an easy fix. Their top defensive lineman, Fred Presley, is back. Presley recorded six sacks last year for the Pirates and accounted for 25 tackles. The Pirates also get Terrell Stanley back after he missed all of 2014 from injuries suffered in a car accident last February. For a guy that only rated as a two star prospect coming out of high school, Stanley is a force. He led ECU in 2013 with seven sacks. ECU also gets back key contributors Johnathan White and K’Hadree Hooker.
But after that, the Pirates are in trouble. Their top two linebackers from last year need to be replaced, as do two more starters in their secondary. The Pirates do have a very good corner returning in Josh Hawkins, and a very good linebacker in Zeek Bigger, but after that, they’ll need to dig in order to find their new starters. Linebackers you may see playing include Montese Overton and Dyann Pratt; in the secondary, watch for Domonique Lennon and DeShaun Amos.
Defensive Grade: C-. ECU’s defense isn’t terrible, but it’s not what Ruffin McNeill will be banking on to win him some games. Florida should be fine on offense.
East Carolina wins if… they hit big plays and get some help. ECU only hit seven passing plays of more than 40 yards last year, but they better fix that if they want to beat Florida. They aren’t going to win with just short and intermediate routes. And of course, Florida is the more talented team, so some major botchery will be required in order for the Pirates to pull the upset in the Swamp.
Florida wins if… they take East Carolina seriously. They’re more talented up and down the roster. The extent is much lesser than the week one game against New Mexico State, but the principle remains. Florida’s offense can win the game however they so choose.
Three things to watch for:
1) This is the first real test for either side, but particularly Florida’s defense. ECU runs a much faster paced offense than New Mexico State will, and the talent level between the Pirates and the Aggies is incomparable. Vernon Hargreaves will get to face his first real threat from an opposing wide receiver and the front seven will face a serviceable offensive line for the first time all year (and it’s not like Florida had a great line for them to practice against in the offseason, either. Thanks, Muschamp.)
2) I’m also anxious to see how Austin Hardin does in the kicking game. He was extremely inconsistent last year, missing a pair of makable field goals against FSU in a 24-19 loss, but nailed the game winner from 50 yards out against Tennessee. This is the first game in which there is a legitimate possibility he might be needed- not necessarily to win the game in triple overtime, but maybe with a 24-10 lead with four minutes to go- and it would be nice to see him connect with at least some pressure on him.
3) Because of the general lack of a threat New Mexico State poses, Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier will have no need to do anything fancy. The Gators can simply bully the Aggies around with their backups. But the gloves are almost certainly coming off in game two. Mac figures to be hiding something from NMSU so ECU can’t accurately scout and analyze his team. Or he’ll see something, have a stroke of genius, and update the offense on the fly a la Dan Mullen (and I’ll write about this in greater detail next week). Whatever it is, we’ll be seeing something new against the Pirates.
East Carolina overall grade: C+. East Carolina’s not a bad team by any means. They certainly aren’t the joke New Mexico State is. But you need to be better than “not a bad team” and “not the joke Florida’s weakest opponent in four years is” to realistically have a shot in the Swamp against a non Muschamp team. And that goes double at night.
Overview: Among those who cover lower level conferences, East Carolina is becoming a trendy dark horse pick to win the American Conference. The talent is there, Ruffin McNeill is a very smart man and has proven more than capable of rebuilding. But asking the new-look Pirates to come into Gainesville in the second week of the season, before they can really gain some experience playing together, and beat a vengeful Florida team is asking for too much.
The main difference between the two teams is that Florida has SEC experience in most parts of their lineup (DeMarcus Robinson, Antonio Morrison, Jonathan Bullard, Kelvin Taylor, Hargreaves, etc.). And where they don’t, they have high levels of talent, like at the QB position. Both teams are breaking in new QB’s, but Florida’s new QB (most likely Will Grier) has ten times the arm ECU’s does, better accuracy, and a higher level of awareness and intelligence.
So this game will be like New Mexico State in the sense that Florida’s more talented, albeit to a much lesser extent. ECU will not face a defense as good as Florida’s all year, and that will make the difference. The Pirates will need more offensive horsepower than they’ve got to pull off this daring nighttime robbery in the Swamp.
Projection: Florida 34, East Carolina 14