A new era at East Carolina will begin on Saturday as the Pirates travel to Raleigh to take on one of their in-state big brothers, the NC State Wolfpack. Both the Pirates and Wolfpack have undergone several changes during the offseason.
East Carolina has a new head coach in Mike Houston. He arrives from James Madison after experiencing a lot of success, including winning the 2016 FCS national championship. Houston is familiar with the Wolfpack, as James Madison lost to NC State 24-13 last year.
For NC State, offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz left Raleigh to become the Appalachian State head coach. The Wolfpack also lost many key starters, including quarterback Ryan Finley.
NC State holds a 17-13 edge in the all-time series versus East Carolina. Although the Wolfpack won last year's meeting, the Pirates have won three out of the last four games in the series.
East Carolina at NC State
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 31 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: ACC Network
Spread: NC State -16.5
When East Carolina Has the Ball
Holton Ahlers was named the Pirates' starting quarterback for their opener against the Wolfpack. Ahlers played in 10 games a year ago, throwing for 1,785 yards and 12 touchdowns against three interceptions. A dual-threat signal-caller, he also ran for 592 yards and six touchdowns.
Stability at the quarterback position should improve East Carolina's offense as a whole. In general, the Pirates are young at the skill positions, but the team does have a couple of veterans at the running back position in senior Hussein Howe and junior Darius Pinnix.
Tight end Anthony Watley and wideout Deondre Farrier, both seniors, will be Ahlers' primary targets in the passing game. On the offensive line, D’Ante Smith and Cortez Herrin are the leaders who will help protect Ahlers.
When NC State Has the Ball
On Monday, NC State announced that redshirt sophomore Matt McKay would get the start against East Carolina in the season opener. During his redshirt freshman season, McKay played sparingly as Finley's backup, completing 7-of-8 passes for 87 yards in six games. McKay will have a tall task in replacing last year's production from the quarterback position, as Finley threw for 3,928 yards and 25 touchdowns.
Not only will the Wolfpack need to find a new starting quarterback, but they will also need to find a new starting running back. Reggie Gallaspy carried the load last season, finishing with 1,091 yards and 18 touchdowns. Ricky Person Jr. is the next running back in line after running for 471 yards and two touchdowns despite missing four games last season. At the wide receiver position, Emeka Emezie should amass a lot more receptions than the 53 he got a year ago.
On paper, NC State has the far superior team as East Carolina tries to build its program back to respectability. However, the Pirates have enough talent on both sides of the ball to make Saturday's game interesting.
If East Carolina is going to keep this close and possibly pull off the upset, the Pirates will need to run the ball effectively to take pressure off Ahlers.
The most significant difference comes in the trenches, as the Wolfpack still have some talented playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. They should be able to put pressure on Ahlers, and that could potentially force a few errant passes.
NC State should come up victorious against East Carolina. However, Houston will have a plan to keep things interesting and the Pirates in the game.
Prediction: NC State 27, East Carolina 17
— 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.