GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) -For years, East Carolina has accepted its role of chip-on-the-shoulder underdog, perennially pining for respect. It has suited the Pirates, who took particular glee recently in upsetting their in-state rivals from the ACC.
But what happens when East Carolina finally gets that respect?
They can't wait to find out in Greenville, where Skip Holtz enters his fourth season still riding the wave that accompanied the Pirates' upset of Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl.
Even with several key departures, including NFL first-round draft pick Chris Johnson, enough talent returns for the Pirates to think about sneaking into the national rankings for the first time in nearly a decade.
They're the preseason pick to finish second in Conference USA's East Division, behind defending champion Central Florida, and in position to pull an early upset against one of two BCS powers on their schedule.
That's part of Holtz's plan for the program: In order to join Virginia Tech and West Virginia - two Top 25 teams the Pirates will play this season, including a season opening matchup with the Hokies in Charlotte - and the sport's other elite teams, the Pirates must continue to play them. And, eventually, beat them.
``That's the next hurdle we've got to climb,'' Holtz said. ``We've talked about (how) we want to get to a bowl game, we want to win a bowl game, we want to represent (C-USA's East Division), we want to win a conference championship. And then, at the same time, we're trying to build this program with the BCS schedule that we have out of conference.
``We're trying to play that level of competition, because that's where we want to take this program.''
Setting the schedule is easy. What's harder for Holtz is finding a replacement for Johnson, who had an NCAA bowl-record 408 total yards in Hawaii. And picking one of last year's starting quarterbacks - Rob Kass or Patrick Pinkney - to start under center. And making improvements on a defense that allowed more than 400 yards per game last year.
And most of all, avoiding the near-annual late-season loss to a losing team that has kept East Carolina out of the past two C-USA title games.
``We're not going to make the same mistake we made the past two years: We're not going to take any conference team lightly,'' defensive end Zack Slate said.
Still, it wasn't that long ago that a good week for the Pirates was staying within a few touchdowns of their opponent - no matter who it was. That's no longer the standard after three seasons with Holtz.
The significance of their bowl victory in Hawaii isn't lost on the players. But beating the same Boise State team that a year earlier stunned Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl - perhaps the biggest victory ever for a smaller program against one of the BCS Goliaths - hasn't led the Pirates to think they can crash the BCS themselves.
``That would be something extremely awesome to experience,'' Slate said. ``And the problem with looking that far ahead is that can get you into serious trouble. That could damage a team bad. We sat down as seniors and we made it a strict goal: We want to take everything one day, one practice, one meeting, one game at a time. Everything 'one.'
``When everything's done, we'll look back. Maybe we did, maybe we didn't. We won some, we lost some. It's going to show.''

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