Would you like to see a terrible magic trick? It’s a disappearing act of sorts: The East Carolina Pirates just beat ACC opponents in back-to-back weeks, played an SEC opponent close on the road before that, and are the toast of the Group of Five — and POOF! They’re gone. You won’t see them again before bowl season unless you know just where to look.
Greenville, North Carolina, isn’t a hamlet1 or anything, and this band of buccaneers isn’t as far out of the way as certain other pirate enclaves. From the east, find the Pamlico River where it feathers the North Carolina coast and follow it inland from its sound to the Tar River, or get newfangled and hop onto U.S. 264. Either will deposit you in town. From the west, campus is about a four-hour drive from Charlotte, depending on game-day traffic. It’s not hard to get to Greenville, but getting out with a win can be tricky.
The town’s population is about 85,000; the university boasts an enrollment greater than 27,000.
Last season, ECU played Virginia Tech to a 15-10 loss at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium; this year, the Pirates got past the 17th-ranked Hokies, 28-21, in Blacksburg. And just last weekend, back at home, ECU dispatched its second Power 5 opponent of the season in a 70-41 slow-burning annihilation of North Carolina. It was the team’s fourth consecutive victory over an ACC opponent, including last year’s road wins at UNC and NC State, and it closely followed a nail-biter of a 10-point loss to then–no. 21 South Carolina. Now, the Pirates find themselves ranked in the national AP Top 25, and not merely in a courtesy slot at the end: They’re sitting pretty in purple at no. 23, their first ranking of any kind since the 2008 season. Given the stinginess with which voters tend to reward the achievements of teams from the five smaller FBS conferences, that’s a legitimate coup.
It’s also probably the last we’re going to hear of the Pirates for a while, as they descend into the mostly featureless beige of an American Athletic Conference schedule that includes just two teams (Temple and Cincinnati) sporting winning records after four weeks of play. ECU has three nationally televised Thursday-night contests coming up, but beyond that, its games figure to be drowned out on football Saturdays by bigger programs playing better opponents. The Pirates’ next adversaries are the SMU Mustangs, who have lost their first three games 45-0, 43-6, and 58-6; have already seen their head coach resign before the midpoint of September; and who have famous alums making deeply ironic calls for the dismantlement of the program. ECU will earn headlines for its blowouts — and barring spiritual fatigue, those blowouts will be myriad — and if the team continues on in this manner, it’ll earn a respectable postseason bid.
But the College Football Playoff, like the BCS before it, isn’t set up to benefit the teams in the smaller leagues. While the top Group of 5 squad is guaranteed a spot in one of the six prestige New Year’s Day bowls, chances for access beyond that will be slim, and even a valiant loss to a power program will probably prove enough to eliminate the Pirates from contention. Since that Week 2 defeat, ECU has been effectively out of the running for a playoff berth, and for the perpetually unlikely prospect of hoisting that vape-pen-inspired playoff trophy. But despite that, a funny thing is happening in Greenville right now: The season is still going on.
This isn’t a shattering revelation: 126 FBS football teams will play out this season and end their campaigns somewhere other than the national title game. One of the two squads that make it that far will still walk away disappointed. There are viewers out there who consider 10-win seasons bitter failures, an attitude that thoroughly grosses us out, considering the volume of work and joy it devalues in the process. There has been widespread discussion following each weekend of games this year about what each new collection of wins and losses means for the playoff, followed by meta-discussion about what all that discussion means for football outside the playoff.
And as prevalent as playoff chatter is, that’s all it is: chatter. This may be the distance of September talking, but from this far out, it seems ludicrous to allow, or even consider allowing, a new postseason system to diminish the thousand discrete moments of glee in a given season. Whatever the new system’s various flaws and unfairnesses — which are dumb and numerous and in many cases unfixable even in the best of circumstances — we remain believers in the now: Bowls are dandy, but too often conducted in sterile, indifferent environments, and at any rate they’re all so far away. This time, on the actual campuses, in the fall? This is the good stuff. It always has been.
Observe: Shortly before kickoff last Saturday, ECU circulated a press release announcing the suspension of star receiver Cam Worthy, last seen on the far end of 224 yards’ worth of passes from Shane Carden against Virginia Tech. We didn’t actually see Carden shrug before hitting Worthy’s backup, Trevon Brown, with a 55-yard touchdown pass on the third play against the Tar Heels, but we like to think he did. If the Pirates cannot beat you that way, they seemed to imply, they will beat you this way. Or this other way, with Breon Allen on the ground — Breon Allen, whose rushing yards through four games read thus: 23, 58, 54, 211.
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Later, after 70 points and nearly 800 offensive yards had elapsed, Brown and Allen were two of the last players to leave the field. They were answering questions and shaking hands, but they were doing a little staring around, too, visibly trying to absorb as much as they could out of this one evening. Pirates head coach and ECU alum Ruffin McNeill lingered a little longer, pointing to his heart, then to the fans still screaming into the stands, and to his family watching from an outdoor terrace of the football complex. Based solely on what we saw last weekend, it appears entirely immaterial to the Pirates and their fans that they’re out of the race. We don’t and shouldn’t have the power to contradict them, and wouldn’t if we did.
It didn’t take trekking to East Carolina in Week 4 to figure this out, but you should try it sometime anyway. There’s a county fair set up down the road right now, and there’s good barbecue in town. There are students skateboarding languidly down the streets behind mounted police officers,2 and thick gusts of meat smoke emanating from hundreds of grills in grassy spots and church parking lots. There are hordes of students in violently purple T-shirts with “UNDAUNTED” across the chest, and indeed, two weeks after a loss that could end up defining the Pirates’ season, their fans packed Dowdy-Ficklen to the point of setting a new school attendance record. The Pirates themselves take the field running out from between the mandibles of a massive inflatable skull. You’d like it there.
At first we thought they were being towed. Is this a sport? Do we have the power to make it a sport? Let’s find out.
At a place like ECU, players come to play, coaches come to coach, and fans enter into binding emotional fandom knowing that the chance of a championship is stacked impossibly against them. It’s not condescension to say so, and the Pirates also aren’t alone in their plight. Their conference isn’t even alone; there are plenty of Power 5 teams who’ve never won it all, and who never will in any of our lifetimes. They’ve existed for this long outside the realm of the shiniest bowls, and they will continue to carry on without them — not ignorant of their existence, but simply going about their lives, much the same way the rest of us spend our days probably not thinking too much about not living on the International Space Station.
That going-on exists all over the country, if you look in the right directions. Cast an eye toward Greenville over the next couple of months and you’ll likely find the Pirates shelling both unsuspecting defenses and suspecting defenses that still can’t stop them. You’ll see the sunset light the horizon around the stadium on fire, and you’ll maybe see a little more purple in the sky than is actually there. And if you’re lucky, you’ll see the breeze kick up at an opportune moment to blow out the red flag, the one with the skull on it that goes up at the start of the fourth during home games, and reads in stark letters: “NO QUARTER.” No quarter asked; none given.