Ruffin McNeill has not approached East Carolina's rugged three-game nonconference stretch here as proving grounds. The fifth-year Pirates coach has always believed his teams belong with whoever they're playing, Power 5 program or not. They entered South Carolina two weeks ago intending to leave with a win, the same way they entered this past weekend at Virginia Tech, the same way they will approach a home tilt with North Carolina this Saturday.
"We did not go down thinking 'upset,'" McNeill told ESPN.com, referring to the loss to the Gamecocks. "We went down expecting to win, and that's saying it as humble as I can. And that's how much I believe in our staff and our team."
Such a mentality hardly hindered ECU last season during its 100-plus mile trip to Chapel Hill, as the Pirates had their way with the Tar Heels in a 55-31 rout. It helped earn them more notoriety nationally three days ago in Blacksburg, Virginia, as they jumped on the Hokies early and scored late for a 28-21 win.
This week? ECU is actually favored over in-state neighbor UNC, the first-year American Athletic Conference program looking to make it back-to-back wins against the Heels before it embarks on league play.
"Oh it's been brought up since we lost to them," UNC safety Tim Scott said. "For 365. Every day our coaches remind us if we don't come ready to play, they already showed us the results when we don't come to play and this year we're trying to make sure that doesn't happen again."
To do that, UNC needs to do what it couldn't do last season, and what few have been able to do since, including NC State late in 2013: Stop Shane Carden.
Carden accounted for six total touchdowns last season against the Heels, throwing for 376 yards. Saturday at Virginia Tech, he was responsible for all four ECU touchdowns and threw for 427 yards. The Houston native's rise has mirrored that of his staff's, each in their fifth years in Greenville.
With McNeill getting hired at ECU roughly two weeks before signing day, Carden appeared to be Stephen F. Austin-bound. Former Texas Tech quarterback B.J. Symons, who had played for the Red Raiders while McNeill was an assistant there, called McNeill about Carden, whose dad was Symons' wife's boss. Carden visited ECU, was intrigued by the idea of running an offense designed by Mike Leach proteges and signed with the Pirates a week later.
"He's always been pretty strong on the mental toughness, the leadership, being one of the guys, the guy that they can rally behind," offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Lincoln Riley told ESPN.com. "Some of that can be taught, but some of that is natural, God-given ability. Sometimes people just follow people and you can't really nail down exactly why. Some people just have that presence about them, and Shane has that."
Carden's first career pass was picked off, at South Carolina in 2012. But he found his footing late that year, leading the Pirates to five wins in their final six regular-season games, during which they scored 42 points per game. Last season, Carden finished in the top-10 nationally of virtually every passing category, leading ECU to a 10-3 mark while making a leap that McNeill described as going from the quarterback of the offense to the quarterback of the team.
"He works every day like he's losing his job, and he works on his craft," said McNeill, who played defensive back at ECU from 1976-80. "The kids call him cap'n: C-A-P-apostrophe-N."
The 31-year-old Riley, meanwhile, has become one of the hottest names on the assistant coaching circuit, based largely off his work with Carden and before that with Michael Crabtree, whom he mentored when coaching receivers at Texas Tech.
Everything seems to be falling into place right now for ECU, which has one of its favorite sons ushering it into this new era in a new league.
"I'm beginning to see it come into fruition, because one thing with Coach (Steve) Spurrier and Coach (Frank) Beamer: They don't just win for a season, they win for seasons, and I would like to get our program where it's understood that we are going to be successful for seasons, not a season," McNeill said. "And the belief and commitment to the team and belief and commitment to our mission and vision -- it's very important that that is continued."
Another win Saturday over a bigger program from down the road would only further that progress, as it would make ECU 4-1 against the ACC in the past two years and serve notice to the rest of its new league brethren.
"You always hear about teams that went undefeated or only lost one game and everybody says, 'Who'd they play?' And they don't have anything to show for it," Carden said. "Well, ECU always has a chance to play these good teams and give us a chance to put our name in the mix with some big-name schools if we go out and win those games."