Marshall’s trip to Greenville, North Carolina will no longer represent the Thundering Herd’s 2020 season-opener. Instead, they will now play Eastern Kentucky on Sept. 5 as a tune-up game before visiting the Pirates.

That addition gives EKU its third game of the season after the FCS level Ohio Valley Conference canceled its fall season. Marshall now has 10 games scheduled, including a full complement of six home games. After some cancellations earlier this off-season stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Thundering Herd patched their non-conference slate back together with matchups against Appalachian State on Sept. 19 and the aforementioned EKU, while sliding its previously scheduled Aug. 29 tilt against ECU back to Sept. 12.

For the Pirates, the movement of the Marshall contest means they will not play until the second week of the college football schedule and have 12 days off before welcoming UCF into town. While that gap before playing UCF — a program that figures to be a top team in the American Athletic Conference this season — will be embraced, there has been much speculation as to whether or not ECU will add another opponent for that Sept. 5 date.

“That one is above my pay grade,” head coach Mike Houston said on Tuesday. “I’ve petitioned for what I want. There’s factors with that stuff. You have a lot of factors with the state of North Carolina, and we’re trying to figure those out, just what game day is going to look like. I know that the administration met on that today, I was in there for just a few minutes. I kind of got a grasp of what they’re looking at there. If we can find the right situation, I would be in favor of it.”

Despite not being able to play for a championship this fall, some FCS football programs are pushing forward with abbreviated seasons filled mostly with games that guarantee a monetary pay-out. EKU, for example, will play both Marshall and West Virginia in 2020, and figures to net hefty pay-outs from those contests.

If ECU were to add an additional game at this point in the off-season, it would likely come in the form of a FCS program that is looking to make some money. Heading into 2020, ECU did not have any scheduled games against FCS opponents after playing two last season. They did have a $300,000 pay-out lined up to collect for playing South Carolina before the SEC altered their scheduling model for the fall.

Even so, to lure a FCS team to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on relatively short notice would take a decent amount of money, funds that ECU’s athletic department would likely spend elsewhere as its financial outlook continues to look grim.

Scheduling a home game for Sept. 5 would make even less sense financially considering ECU would not be allowed to have fans in the stands. Under North Carolina’s Phase 2 of reopening — which runs through at least Sept. 11 — outdoor gatherings are limited to no more than 25 people, meaning the Pirates would need to seek an exemption if they wanted Pirate Nation to attend.

If Governor Roy Cooper moves the state into Phase 3 on Sept. 11, it seems likely the Pirates would be allowed to have fans in the stands for their season-opener against Marshall a day later. While the capacity of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium would likely be limited to 25-50%, that would at least help soften the blow ECU’s athletic department will take due to COVID-19.

Taking into account all those factors, ECU Athletic Director Jon Gilbert said last month he feels “comfortable” playing the current 10-game schedule the Pirates have lined up this season. At that time, Gilbert said we would know in the coming weeks what the first couple weeks of the campaign would look like. Three weeks later, it appears the only movement at the top of ECU’s schedule will be in regards to its game against Marshall.

By playing a tune-up game ahead of visiting Greenville, the Thundering Herd will be able to knock some rust off and identify their points of weakness in live game action against an actual opponent. The flip side of that is ECU will get a look at the 2020 version of Marshall in action, and can spend a week preparing based off of recent game film.

“We’ll get to see Marshall the week before they play us, so you’ll at least get a good look at them,” Houston said. “But they’ll also get live game reps before they play us. It is what it is, control what you can control.”

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