IRVING, Texas – Coming off its sixth bowl appearance in the last seven years, East Carolina has been tabbed the Conference USA East Division favorites by the league’s 14 head coaches on Wednesday.
The Pirates picked up 11 of 14 first place votes for a total of 95 points to finish ahead of Marshall (82) and Middle Tennessee (70), both of which also garnered first place votes. Defending C-USA champion Tulsa was chosen unanimously as the preseason favorite to win the West Division accumulating 98 total points. Rice (76) and new conference member Louisiana Tech (72) came in second and third, respectively.
The league’s ninth annual Championship Game, pitting the champions of the East and West divisions, will be held Saturday, December 7.
ECU, who turned in an 8-5 overall record and a 7-1 C-USA mark (co-divisional champs), return 16 of 22 positional starters with eight on each side of the ball. The Pirates also return 76 percent of their rushing yards, 88 percent of their passing yards and 81.8 percent of their turnover production.
Of the 16 returnees, Vintavious Cooper (RB), Justin Hardy (WR), Derrell Johnson (LB) and Will Simmons (OL) all garnered preseason first-team accolades. The quartet of honorees also earned preseason all-league accolades by Athlon Sports and Phil Steele’s College Football Preview Magazine, while being named to the Biletnikoff Award (top receiver), Butkus Award (top linebacker) and Outland Trophy (top interior lineman) Watch Lists.
Hardy (All-Purpose Player-of-the-Year nominee) and Johnson (top 40 linebackers at the FBS level nominee) also garnered College Football Performance Awards (CFPA) Watch List honors.
Cooper, the 2012 C-USA Newcomer-of-the-Year, took home second-team all-conference honors last fall after a dazzling debut season in ECU's backfield. He appeared in all 13 games, starting the last eight ,and authored four 100-yard rushing games (151/UTEP, 172/UAB, 121/Navy, 140/UH), which is ranked as the second-highest total in C-USA. The Homerville, Ga. native booked three-straight triple-digit rushing efforts (vs. Blazers, Midshipmen and Cougars), the first by a Pirate since 2003 (Marvin Townes), and became the 12th player in school history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season (1,049). The senior running back scored eight total TDs (7 rush, 1 pass), standing second on the team with Shane Carden behind Justin Hardy (11).
A key component in the Pirates' potent passing attack in 2012, Hardy was a first-team all-conference selection after ranking among the national FBS leaders in receptions per game (21st/6.77 rpg), total receiving yards (23rd/1,105) and reception yards per game (31st/85.0 ypg). The Vanceboro, N.C. native became just the fourth receiver in school history to reach 1,000 reception yards (1,105) in a single season, which ranks third all-time at ECU. He also ranked among the C-USA leaders in receptions per game (2nd), 100-yard receiving games (2nd), receiving yards per game (3rd), all-purpose yards (7th), all-purpose yards (7th/1,280) and scoring TDs (8th).
Last year Johnson led all ECU defenders in sacks, tackles for lost yardage, fumble recoveries and quarterback pressures on his way to second-team all-league accolades. He stood among the league's top 10 with 7.0 sacks and netted 11.0 overall stops behind the line of scrimmage while starting all 13 contests. In addition, the Baltimore prep product was credited with a pair of fumble recoveries, keyed a pass rush with eight pressures and logged 62 total tackles - 27 solo.
Simmons earned all-conference honors a year ago after starting all 13 games at right guard and was a vital member of an offensive line that helped produce five 100-yard rushing performances and four 300-yard passing contests. Additionally he was part of three games where ECU produced 550 or more yards of total offense (600/UAB, 550/UH, 555/MAR). The Ahoskie, N.C. native also helped pave the way for a season-high 245 yards rushing against the Cougars in 2012, while playing a pivotal role for an offensive unit that provided pass protection for Carden's single-game passing record of 439 yards against Marshall and Cooper's 1,049-yard rushing season.
Season tickets for East Carolina’s 2013 home football schedule are on sale now. Season ticket packages start as low as $150 in the upper deck, while lower level ticket locations begin at $200 and require a Pirate Club membership. Tickets can be purchased by calling the ECU Athletic Ticket Office at 252-737-4500 or through the Online Ticket Center on www.ECUPirates.com. For more information on the Pirate Club, visit www.ecupirateclub.com.
Sales for single-game tickets will begin on Monday, August 5 at 9:00 a.m.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
EAST DIVISION – Points
1. East Carolina (11) – 95
2. Marshall (2) – 82
3. Middle Tennessee (1) – 70
4. UAB – 54
5. Southern Miss – 40
6. Florida Atlantic – 28
7. FIU – 23
WEST DIVISION – Points
1. Tulsa (14) – 98
2. Rice – 76
3. Louisiana Tech – 72
4. UTEP – 46
5. North Texas – 39
6. Tulane – 31
7. UTSA – 30
(first place votes in parentheses)