College Football Week 1 NC State vs. East Carolina Picks, Betting Odds, Predictions: Will Pirates Cover Spread?
Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Image. Pictured: Holton Ahlers (East Carolina)
NC State vs. East Carolina Odds
This matchup is what early-season college football is all about. Two in-state programs that don’t like each other — one Power Five and one Group of Five — facing off in their respective season openers.
There’s even a “Victory Barrel” that will get awarded to the winner. Plus, both teams should be extra hungry for game action after having their bowl games cancelled last season.
These programs have faced each other 31 previous times, dating back to 1970. They last met back in 2019 when current head coach Mike Houston made his debut at ECU. NC State won that game with ease by a score of 34-6.
The Wolfpack also obliterated ECU in the 2018 regular-season finale by a score of 58-3 after the Pirates kicked a field goal as time expired to avoid a shutout. Yikes.
Believe it or not, a few current ECU players were on the field for both of those embarrassing losses, which I’m sure they would like to avenge.
While NC State leads the overall series 18-13, this will mark only the fifth time ECU will serve as host in Greenville at rowdy Dowdy-Ficklen, which should be electric.
In the six meetings played outside of Raleigh (two neutral-site), ECU has gone 5-1. That includes a pair of thrilling victories in the two most recent meetings:
- 2010: 33-27 in OT against Russell Wilson
- 2016: 33-30
Right around touchdown underdogs in each, the Pirates jumped out to leads (30-0 combined in the first quarter) and eventually held on for dear life.
Both teams come into the season with extremely experienced rosters and high expectations — albeit at different scales. A victory for either would really set the tone for the rest of the season, while the loser will walk away with a sour taste in its mouth.
Can the Pirates pull off the upset at home for a third-straight meeting, or can the more talented Wolfpack come out on top? Let’s take a closer look.
Expectations are as high as they’ve been in quite some time in Raleigh for a veteran Wolfpack team that has a real shot at not only winning the ACC, but also making its first appearance in the College Football Playoff.
However, the first order of business is dealing with those expectations and taking care of business on the road against an experienced ECU program on the rise playing in its Super Bowl.
It all starts with darkhorse Heisman candidate Devin Leary at quarterback. The four-year starter really upped his efficiency in 2021, throwing for 35 touchdowns to just five interceptions.
Overall, the offense does return eight starters, but the three losses leave big shoes to fill. The Wolfpack will need to replace star left tackle Ikem Ekwonu (6th overall draft pick), leading receiver Emeka Emezie, and leading rusher Zonovan Knight and his backup Ricky Person.
Knight, now with the New York Jets, will also be missed as a dynamite kick returner on an otherwise rock solid special teams unit.
How NC State replaces its top left tackle, back and receiver will go a long way in determining if Dave Doeren’s bunch lives up to their lofty expectations.
Sophomore Anthony Belton will step in at left tackle with only one career snap against FBS competition. On the positive side, left guard Chandler Zavala returns from injury after getting an extra year of eligibility. Consequently, Dylan McMahon can slide back to right guard.
There will probably be a few more blown assignments at left tackle this season, but the very deep offensive line should be fine overall.
And while I think NC State got worse at running back, it wasn’t very effective at running the ball last year. To me, the biggest hole is left by Emezie, who was so critical on third downs and in clutch situations.
Even with a Heisman hopeful at quarterback, it’s the defense that is the stronger of the two units. NC State will return nine starters from a top-20 defense in 2021. Additionally, it will get a number of key contributors back from injury, including defensive lineman C.J Clark. There’s depth for days.
First-team All ACC nose tackle Corey Durden returns to man the interior of the three-man front that helped lead the Pack to top-5 rankings in both Stuff Rate and Power Success Rate.
Clark, the previous starting nose tackle, will move outside to defensive end and hopefully help NC State generate more pressure — one of the few relative areas of weakness last year.
At the next level, NC State will feature arguably the best linebacker corps in the entire nation — Drake Thomas, Isaiah Moore and Payton Wilson. Good luck getting much on the ground against this crew.
On the back end, all three starting corners return in addition to First-Team All ACC safety Tanner Ingle. The hard-hitting Ingle will be joined by previous Florida State transfer Cyrus Fagan, who suffered a season-ending surgery in the second game of last season.
The Pirates are looking to build on a seven-win campaign that matched the combined wins of the previous two years. They won four of their final five games to secure their first winning campaign since 2014.
They have a very experienced roster with 15 returning starters, including three who played new positions for the first time last season.
Like NC State, ECU will have a super-experienced quarterback in Holton Ahlers. The Greenville native returns for his fifth year as a starter — although it feels more like 15.
He will get help from a very dangerous backfield, led by one of the nation’s speediest backs, Keaton Mitchell, and a slimmed down Rahjai Harris.
The Pirates did lose two of their top three receivers with downfield threat Jsi Hatfield suspended for the first two games.
They do return a super intriguing prospect in tight end Ryan Jones. The Oklahoma transfer thrived in his first season at the position after converting from linebacker.
Ahlers’ high school teammate, C.J. Johnson, will also return at the slot position. He should have a monster season.
A pair of transfers must fill the void on the outside. Isaiah Winstead was Toledo’s second-leading receiver last year, while Jaylen Johnson comes in from Georgia with little game experience.
Can they step up and get on the same page early on with Ahlers? That will likely determine whether or not ECU has a shot against NC State. I think the team has enough talent, assuming the offensive line takes a big step forward in pass protection.
That’s a big ask after ranking 106th in Sack Rate in 2021.
The offensive line struggled in every phase last year — also finishing 115th in Line Yards. However, there’s finally reason for optimism with a very experienced unit led by a center who really came on late last year after moving to the position last offseason.
The Pirates also added some nice reinforcements with legitimate pedigree via the transfer portal.
The defense boasts an abundance of experience, too, but must replace two of its most productive players in cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian (now with the Broncos) and linebacker Bruce Bivens.
This side of the ball has plagued ECU for years but finally showed some signs of improvement last year. The hope is even more experience will lead to another jump in efficiency even after losing two critical starters.
Lastly, the Pirates do have an excellent special teams unit that finished in the top 15 in 2021, per my ratings.
NC State vs. East Carolina Betting Pick
For those into trends, since his debut loss to NC State, Mike Houston has gone 10-2 ATS as a double-digit underdog, covering by an average margin of 9.5 points. However, Doreen is a not-too-shabby 27-20 ATS as a double-digit favorite.
Something has to give.
I think ECU can hang around in this game, assuming it gets off to a fast start. The Pirates are significantly less talented but may benefit from a lot of intangibles in this game.
Getting to play in Greenville with nothing to lose against a team dealing with cavalier expectations can only work in its favor in my opinion.
NC State also isn’t really built to exploit the issues ECU has defending the run. I also think Leary will really miss Emezie on third downs, especially early in the season.
On the other side of the ball, NC State is just average at generating pressure against opposing quarterbacks, which could give this offensive line (and Ahlers) a bit of a break.
Expect ECU to throw every wrinkle and trick play out for this one. The whole kitchen sink.
I project this game at NC State -9, so while not enough value to usually bet this early in the season, I was willing to bet ECU at anything over 10 for some of the reasons I discussed above.
In regards to live betting, I will have no interest in ECU if it gets down early. If NC State jumps out to say a 10-14 point lead, it could get ugly. Conversely, if it’s close early, I think it will stay close throughout.