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ECU looking to leave C-USA with a title, Pirates to begin play in AAC next season

East Carolina wants to leave Conference USA with a title.

The Pirates enter their final season in the league they've called home since 1997 as a favorite to claim a third title in six years.

East Carolina and Tulane are leaving C-USA for the American Athletic Conference beginning next season.

Coach Ruffin McNeill says he welcomes the high expectations that come with being picked by his fellow C-USA coaches as the favorite in the East Division.

"At East Carolina, in my opinion, expectations have always been high. That's the standard," coach Ruffin McNeill said. "That's why players and coaches have chosen to come here. We have a target on our back and will get everybody's best shot."

With a strong core of returning players — 16 starters are back, including quarterback Shane Carden and running back Vintavious Cooper — East Carolina has plenty of reasons to expect success.

"It's always been expected here," said McNeill, a defensive back for the Pirates in the 1970s. "Even when I go back to my playing days, when I was 18, 19 years old, it was expected to win here at East Carolina. When I came in as head coach, because of the success from before, the bar was always high. I think that's why the players have chosen to come here."

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Here are five things to watch in East Carolina's final season in C-USA:

1. HANDLING SUCCESS. The Pirates seem to be at their best when they have a chip on their shoulder and something to prove, and the biggest key this year will be how they handle being one of the marquee programs in a transitioning Conference USA that is welcoming new members while watching others leave for the American conference. McNeill says this team has a strong leadership core that is "one of the largest we've had here to help our team" and "will not let us have a bad practice or a bad day of work." He hopes those leaders will keep the Pirates focused during their final season before they jump to a more challenging conference.

2. ANOTHER TOUGH ROAD. The Pirates always fill their schedule with difficult non-conference opponents and this year is no exception. They play host to Virginia Tech and visit North Carolina in consecutive games, then travel to North Carolina State in their next-to-last game. If they can find some success against the Hokies and Tar Heels, those two early-season out-of-league games could set the tone for a run through a much more navigable Conference USA schedule.

3. AIR RAID. East Carolina has always loved to throw the ball under McNeill, and Carden emerged from a four-man competition last season to seize the quarterback job. He was third in the league with a 143.01 pass efficiency rating, ranked fourth with nearly 240 yards passing per game and was fifth in total offense with an average of 245 yards. He's the clear-cut leader of the offense this year and McNeill is counting on him to put up even bigger numbers in his second season as the starter. It helps that he will be throwing to top target Justin Hardy, who caught seven passes per game last season and led the team with 11 touchdowns.

4. THEY CAN RUN, TOO. Cooper, a 1,049-yard rusher in 2012, had four 100-yard rushing performances last season while winning the league's newcomer of the year award. That run included three in a row — the first time a Pirate rusher did that since 2003. McNeill needs him to continue to produce so that opposing defenses can't simply focus on the passing game.

5. DEFENSE MUST IMPROVE. The Pirates know their defense has to be better this season after giving up averages of nearly 450 total yards and 32 points a year ago in the offensive-dominated C-USA. They allowed opponents to score at least 40 points five times — giving up 56 to Navy, 59 to Marshall in the regular-season finale and 43 in a New Orleans Bowl loss to Louisiana-Lafayette. Eight starters are back from that unit, including LB Derrell Johnson, who led the team in sacks, tackles for lost yardage, fumble recoveries and quarterback pressures. McNeill says the defensive players "have grasped from (coordinator Rick Smith), his staff and I like the way they've attacked and embraced it."

Predicted order of finish in Conference USA: First place in East Division.

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