East Carolina head coach Mike Houston will begin his third season as the Pirates head coach on Thursday night against Appalachian State at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina.
"Game week is finally here," Houston said earlier this week. "We had a really sharp practice last night. You could tell last night, the kids, they're excited to play.
"They just had a different pep in their step. Great energy. Great focus. Really excited about the matchup this Thursday night. Certainly, a significant challenge against a very good Appalachian State football team. But we're excited to get back to playing, and we're excited we're going an excellent bunch of Pirate fans in the stands at Bank of America Stadium. So, looking forward to it."
After back-to-back losing seasons in Greenville, a win over the Mountaineers would go a long way in giving the Pirates momentum for the 2021 season.
ECU is 7-14 under Houston, including a 3-6 mark in a COVID-shortened 2020 campaign. The Pirates did win their last two games of the season against Temple and SMU.
Appalachian State is coming off a 9-3 campaign under first-year head coach Shawn Clark. Two of the Mountaineers' three losses came against teams in the Top 25 (Coastal Carolina and Louisana). Appalachian State's third loss came against Marshall, which spent time ranked as well.
Appalachian State leads the all-time series against ECU 19-12. However, the Pirates have won the last six games, as the Mountaineers will try to defeat ECU for the first time since 1975.
East Carolina vs. Appalachian State
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 2 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Where: Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte, N.C.)
Spread: Appalachian State - 10.5
When East Carolina Has the Ball
ECU returns 20 starters from its 2020 team, half of which are on offense. Included in that group is quarterback Holton Ahlers, who has thrown for 7,093 yards and 51 touchdowns in 25 career starts.
Houston says it will be necessary for Ahlers and the ECU offense to limit the mistakes in a game like this.
"Whether you're talking about turnovers, because I do think turnovers will be a factor in this ballgame," Houston said. "Which team can take care of the ball and which team can force some mistakes. Being able to play aggressively and downhill the way we want to defensively.
"At the same time, not giving up anything cheap, that's going to be critical. They're a team that has a lot of experience and guys that have played a lot of snaps. Virtually every position, both sides of the ball. So, that's a group that usually doesn't make a ton of mistakes."
Running back Rahjai Harris could also be a significant key for ECU. Harris is coming off an excellent freshman season where he earned Co-Rookie of the Year honors in the AAC with 624 rushing yards and five total touchdowns.
When Appalachian State Has the Ball
The Mountaineers are loaded offensively, as the team has 17 starters returning, including 14 who decided to come back for their fifth year of eligibility due to the COVID-impacted 2020 campaign.
However, Appalachian State will have a new quarterback under center as Chase Brice will likely replace Zac Thomas, who graduated in the spring. Brice comes over from Duke, where he threw for 2,170 yards after transferring over from Clemson.
Another player ECU will have to worry about is running back Camerun Peoples, who accounted for 317 rushing yards and five touchdowns on just 22 carries in the Myrtle Beach Bowl last year. Peoples finished the year with 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. The Pirates' run defense has been a weakness in recent years and could be an issue on Thursday night.
This could be one of the more entertaining games on opening weekend. Both Appalachian State and ECU can put up a ton of points. So it will come down to which team can make a critical defensive stop when it needs one.
That might be where Appalachian State has a slight advantage.
Both of the Mountaineers' starting defensive ends are returning seniors in Caleb Spurlin and Demetrius Taylor, who led the team with six sacks in 2020. In fact, Appalachian State's entire starting defensive front seven returns from last season, and that certainly could give Ahlers and the ECU offense some issues.
Prediction: Appalachian State 41, East Carolina 37
Podcast: Week 0 Recap
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.