My favorite thing about the early part of the college football season is when a team that was supposed to be powerhouse fodder improves faster than the powerhouse thought it would at the time the game was scheduled, and the power gets handed its hat.
This year's schedule whoopser is East Carolina, which has notched wins over No. 17 Virginia Tech and No. 8 West Virginia in its first two games.
East Carolina signed agreements to play both of those schools and several other regional big-shots following the 2004 season. The school probably didn't have much trouble getting VaTech, West Virginia and such teams as Virginia and North Carolina State to sign long agreements that largely filled up East Carolina's schedule through 2013.
The Pirates were coming off a 2-9 season in 2004, which had actually been an improvement on their 1-11 disaster in '03. They hadn't been to a bowl game since the 2001 GMAC Bowl, hadn't had a winning season, bowl-game included, since 2000, when you surely remember their stirring win over Texas Tech in the Galleryfurniture.com Bowl.
Remember dot-com bowls? There's only one left, you know. Papajohns.com. Where are the preservationists when you need them? We're losing a part of our history.
Anyway, Virginia Tech confidently hitched up for an eight-year series starting in 2006. At the time the contract was signed, the Hokies hadn't had a losing season in 12 years. They were coming off a 10-3 finish and a Sugar Bowl appearance.
West Virginia signed on for four games starting in '06. The Mountaineers weren't yet the 11-win machine they would become starting in 2005, but they were coming off three straight winning seasons, four out of five, and were obviously moving in the right direction under Rich Rodriguez.
East Carolina hired a new coach in '05, Skip Holtz, Lou's son. The Pirates have improved steadily from that 2-9 year in '04, going 5-6, 7-5 and 8-5 in Holtz's first three seasons. Now they're 2-0 and ranked No. 14 in this week's Associated Press poll, No. 20 in the USA Today poll, and the toughest part of their schedule is over.
The first few years after the contract was signed were no problem for West Virginia, which went 33-5 in the three years after the ink dried, and Virginia Tech, which went 33-8. The Mountaineers took the Pirates 20-15 in 2005, before the current agreement kicked in, then beat them 27-10 and 48-7 in the last two years. East Carolina's 24-3 drilling in Greenville Saturday was Game 3 of the series. Think West Virginia will be interested in re-upping after next year's game?
Virginia Tech ended up not playing East Carolina in 2006 because of some schedule-shuffling. The contract was extended for a year instead. In '07 Virginia Tech took care of business with a 17-7 win, but the Hokies got a surprise Aug. 30, losing 27-22 in a neutral-site game in Charlotte.
Six games to go in that series. If current trends continue, they won't quite be what the Hokies had in mind.
East Carolina is one of the very few non-BCS teams that plays all of its non-conference games against BCS schools. The two remaining are Virginia and North Carolina State. The Pirates are off to a great start and have become the hot pick to become this year's non-BCS at-large team in a BCS bowl.
Win or lose, Holtz and East Carolina are going about it the right way. If only more BCS teams filled their non-conference schedule with nothing but BCS teams. Then of course it would be harder for East Carolina to do it. Then again, if the Pirates keep winning, it's going to be damn-near impossible anyway.