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Lost in all the hoopla surrounding Big 12 ExpansionWatch 2016™ is that, at least for the time being, ECU is still apart of the AAC. With that comes a challenging conference slate during the back half of the season.  While ECU may be focused on different things right now, it’s important for the Pirate football team to concentrate on what is in front of them, namely a tough stretch of games beginning in October that will probably have an effect on the stock of the program that was picked fifth in the AAC East in the conference’s preseason poll.

The good news for the Pirates is that they won’t exactly be jumping into the fire after a tough non-conference schedule. The Pirates open with UCF, which is coming off a winless season. Online sportsbooks like NetBet have the Pirates favored to win this game by 14 or more points. While the Knights should be improved (because honestly they can’t get much worse) under first year head coach Scott Frost, there’s no reason to believe the Pirates won’t open their conference schedule with a victory. That brings us to their first key game.

USF – October 8

When the Pirates travel to Tampa to take on the Bulls on October 8, it will mark the first real AAC test for Scottie Montgomery’s squad. The Bulls have one of the most dynamic one-two punches in the conference (and nation) with quarterback Quinton Flowers and running back Marlon Mack.

Flowers and Mack accounted for 43 touchdowns and 2,372 rushing yards a season ago. The Bulls are also stacked on the defensive side of the ball, with linebacker Auggie Sanchez and defensive tackle Bruce Hector leading a group that allowed 22.9 points per game in 2015.

In just three seasons, head coach Willie Taggart has completely turned the USF program around. USF went 8-5 last year, and were picked first in this season’s AAC East preseason poll.

In last season’s meeting, the Bulls and Pirates were locked in a first half stalemate in a driving rainstorm in Greenville before Flowers and Mack broke loose to carry USF to a 22-17 win. ECU gained only 227 total yards, learning first hand just how tough the Bull defense was. The win kicked off a four game win streak for the Bulls that culminated with a trip to the Miami Beach Bowl.

The Pirates will need to put forth a better effort against the Bulls this season if they want to get their AAC slate off to a good start.

Cincinnati – October 22

Another huge road game for the Pirates will be on October 22 against the Cincinnati Bearcats. The Bearcats have been picked third in the AAC East preseason poll, and will be adjusting to a new offensive coordinator while breaking in several new starters on offense. Senior quarterback Gunner Kiel leads an attack that has weapons all over the field, including running backs Tion Green and Mike Boon. The receiving corps will be looking to replace Chris Moore and Shaq Washington, but should have some of its trademark explosiveness on the outside with Mekale McKay and Alex Chisum.

Defensively, the Bearcats will be under their fourth different defensive coordinator in head coach Tommy Tuberville’s fourth season. Returning your top three tacklers in linebacker Eric Wilson, safety Zach Edwards and linebacker Bryce Jenkinson should ease the transition.

The Pirates will be out for revenge, as they lost a 19-16 heartbreaker at home to the Bearcats in the 2015 season finale, knocking the Pirates out of bowl consideration and sending them into the offseason with a disappointing 5-7 record.

Temple – November 26

No surprise here. The Pirates travel to Philadelphia to take on the defending AAC East champion Temple Owls on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The Owls will probably be a bit down this season, but for a team coming off a school record 10 wins, they’re still going to be extremely tough. The Owls return quarterback P.J. Walker and running back Jahad Thomas, the main cogs of an offense that averaged 29.8 points per game and 5.37 yards per play last season.   The Owls will once again be run heavy with Walker, Thomas and an experienced offensive line.

Defensively, the Owls will have to replace 2015 AAC Defensive Player of the Year Tyler Matakevich. Even with Matakevich’s departure, Temple should still have one of the conference’s best defenses. They allowed just 20.1 points per game last year, and return studs Praise Martin-Oguke, Haason Redick and Sean Chandler.

The Pirates were up 14-10 at half during last season’s meeting, but the Owls scored 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to come away with a 24-14 win in Greenville.

While these three games will certainly be a major key to ECU’s AAC success, they’re not the only tests. The Pirates still have to deal with threats from the AAC West in Navy, Tulsa and SMU. One thing is for sure: the Pirates have a tough road ahead once they roll into their conference schedule.