A tradition that, for many, signals the true beginning of the upcoming college football season began hitting mailboxes late last week and early this week. For the past 26 editions, it has become the quintessential preview to the college football season and has established itself as one of the most accurate predictors of campaigns yet to be played.

That, of course, is the Phil Steele’s College Football Preview magazine, a publication that this year spans over 350 pages and includes run-downs on all 130 FBS teams. Of course, Steele does not stop there but instead includes metric after metric, breaking down each and every team from a slew of angles and perspectives.

This year’s edition was, like many other things, impacted by the COVID-19 virus as the release date was pushed back a handful of weeks to late-July. Nevertheless, football fans all across the country can now begin digging into their teams and conferences to see where they stack up according to one of the industry’s foremost experts.

For Pirate Nation and ECU football fans, the two pages devoted to the Pirates paint the picture of a young, potentially explosive program that is only trending upward.

A last place finish in the American Athletic Conference is fitting for a team that is losing so much on the defensive side of the football while watching its strength of schedule creep up to 76th, as ranked by Steele.

“Marshall, at South Carolina, at Georgia State, there’s really not a lot of easy ones (games),” Steele told Patrick Johnson on 94.3 The Game last week. “You look at the four teams East Carolina beat last year, Gardner-Webb, William & Mary, Old Dominion and Connecticut, those are four teams that combined for one win over an FBS opponent, you don’t really have that this year. Plus drawing a team like UCF — the schedule itself in the American Conference is tough…I actually graded the American Conference the fifth-toughest conference in college football last year ahead of the ACC.”

UCF is Steele’s pick to win the AAC in 2020 as the Pirates are projected to struggle mightily on defense. With only four returning starters accounting for just 58.8% of last year’s tackles (83rd in the FBS), ECU’s defense will be among the most inexperienced in the nation.

No where is that felt more than along the defensive line. Kendall Futrell, Chance Purvis, Jalen Price and Alex Turner are all gone, leaving some new faces to take over duties up front.

In his projected two-deep, Steele, who takes the time to speak with most head coaches about their roster in-depth, has Henry Garrison, Immanuel Hickman, Hozey Haji-Badri and Traveon Freshwater as the starters along Mike Houston’s defensive line for 2020.

“I remember going over the team with coach Houston last year,” Steele said. “His first assessment of the defensive line was he likes size in that front seven and he didn’t have any. They were experienced but it was a smaller unit than what he had been accustomed to. You don’t gain or build that type of defensive line that you want overnight. It usually is about a three-year process until you get that third recruiting class in there.

“I don’t think the defensive line is going to be up to coach Houston’s standards until maybe next year and next year it’ll be an experienced defensive line with the size that he covets. This year, all four starters are gone from up front, so even if you do have some size, you’ve lost a lot of experience.”

Even with some experience along that line in 2019, ECU’s defense still finished 111th in points allowed per game and 119th in yards allowed per game. With some of those bodies removed from up front, Steele’s computer models are projecting the Pirates’ defense will finish 2020 next to last in total defense and 127th in rushing defense.

To put a numeral figure on it, Steele’s models project ECU to allow 255.5 passing yards, 241.1 rushing yards and 38.3 points per game to opposing offenses in 2020.

“I think they’re capable of playing with anyone in the American Conference on any given Saturday,” Steele said of the Pirates. “It’s just that when you look at the scheme of things, the overall talent and schedule that they play, how many times they’re going to be an underdog doing the course of the year, that’s why I had to pick them towards the bottom.”

Last year, ECU proved Steele correct by playing to one possession outcomes against nationally ranked Cincinnati and SMU teams in back-to-back weeks. Much of that was due to the Pirates’ strong offensive effort, something Steele seems to be high on in 2020.

“When you’ve got C.J. Johnson, Blake Proehl, Tyler Snead, those are three of the better receivers in the conference,” Steele said. “Holton Ahlers last year — I think it was after eight games — he had a 7-7 (touchdown-interception) ratio and you’re like ‘he’s OK.’ Then those last four games, he just blew up. A 14-3 ratio, 429 yards per game and East Carolina’s offense blew up. I know coach Houston would prefer to run the football, but when you’ve got that kind of combination at the quarterback and receiver, I think we will see the passing.”

Heading into the 2020 campaign, Steele has ECU’s quarterback room ranked 36th-best in the country and fourth in the AAC. The Pirates’ receiving corps also earned high marks, ranking 31st-best in the nation and fifth in the conference.

Special teams was rated as the best Pirate unit, coming in 25th in the country and second in the AAC.

“It’s been a while since East Carolina has even ranked in my top-50 at the special teams, in fact they hadn’t for quite some time,” Steele said. “Last year, they got up to No. 41. This year coming into the season, I’ve got them ranked No. 25 heading into the year. So this is a top-25 special teams. To me, that shows you the strength of coaching. Generally the coaches will have their offense or the defense, but the ones that are great on special teams really show you that it’s the complete package.”

While ECU’s defense pulled down two 2nd Team Preseason All-AAC honorees in Steele’s publication in Xavier Smith and Aaron Ramseur, the special teams unit saw both kicker Jake Verity and kick returner Tyler Snead earn the same distinction while newcomer Luke Larsen was a fourth team member as a punter.

With the bad (the defense), always comes the good (offense and special teams) for the Pirates. This season, ECU has a chance to post historic numbers both offensively and defensively for two completely different reasons.

Featuring 44 returning lettermen to the roster and eight returning starters on offense, the challenge for the Pirates in 2020 will be out-working a defense that figures to be very leaky once again.

“You could tell that he (Houston) ran a big-time program at James Madison and did extremely well,” Steele said. “Came in here with a plan, which I liked, and knew the deficiencies that East Carolina had and had a plan to correct each of the deficiencies as I mentioned. I think that defensive line, you’re going to see the defensive line he covets next year — not necessarily this year with the inexperience they have…

“This program needed to be reworked. When you need the defense, which was built for small and speedy to get bigger like they do, you don’t do that overnight. I really like what he’s doing with East Carolina.”

Listen to Patrick Johnson’s full interview with Phil Steele that first aired on 94.3 The Game last week below:

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