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2022 TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl Preview: Coastal Carolina Chanticleers vs. East Carolina Pirates

Grayson McCall plays his final game in teal against an ECU squad looking for its first bowl win in nine years.

NCAA Football: Army at Coastal Carolina Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Game notes

  • Time and date: Tuesday, December 27 at 6:45 p.m. ET / 5:45 p.m. CT
  • Network: ESPN
  • Location: Protective Stadium — Birmingham, AL
  • Spread: Coastal Carolina (-7), per DraftKings
  • Over/under: 65, per DraftKings
  • Coastal Carolina money line: +235, per DraftKings
  • East Carolina money line: -280, per DraftKings
  • All-time series: No previous matchups
  • Coastal Carolina last bowl: 2021 Cure Bowl, 47-41 win over to Northern Illinois
  • East Carolina last bowl: 2014 Birmingham Bowl, 28-20 loss to Florida
  • 2021 Birmingham Bowl matchup: Houston 17, Auburn 13

* Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See for details.

Setting the scene

It’s Carolina vs. Carolina. East Carolina and Coastal Carolina are usually separated by a state boundary, but the two squads converge in one city for the 2022 Birmingham Bowl.

This Birmingham Bowl signifies the end of an era for Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers will operate without head coach Jamey Chadwell, who departed to Liberty after the conclusion of the regular season. Chadwell ushered in the most prosperous era of Chanticleer football, compiling a 31-6 record over the past three seasons and registering the program’s first bowl win. Defensive coordinator Chad Staggs serves as the interim for this game, but former NC State offensive coordinator Tim Beck takes the head coaching reins once the team departs from Birmingham.

East Carolina remains on a promising trajectory under head coach Mike Houston, and the Pirates are bowl eligible for the second consecutive season. However, ECU has not participated in bowl season since 2015 after a COVID-19 issue within the Boston College locker room canceled its 2021 Military Bowl matchup. The Pirates have not brought bowl hardware back to campus since 2013, so they’ll vie for their first postseason win in nearly a decade.

Coastal Carolina Chanticleers outlook

While the Jamey Chadwell era has come to a conclusion in Conway, SC, the Grayson McCall era is still thriving — for one more game. The three-time Sun Belt Player of the Year announced his intent to transfer, but he will suit up one more time for the program he transformed into a perennial winner. McCall missed substantial time in November due to injury, but the efficient signal caller is back in the lineup to try to win Coastal Carolina its second straight bowl.

McCall completed 69.1 percent of his passes in the regular season while wielding an impressive touchdown-to-interception ratio of 24-to-2. This is no fluke — this is exactly what McCall has done in all three seasons as the Chanticleers’ starter. He has delivered 77 touchdown strikes and just eight interceptions over that time span, so expect another efficient showing to end a storied career in teal and black.

The All-Sun Belt quarterback is an aficionado at running the option as well. While Coastal Carolina hasn’t used him in the mobility department as frequently as it used to, McCall still possesses a crafty running ability to keep defenses honest. His backfield consists of the Reese White and CJ Beasley duo, which should carry most of the load on the ground Tuesday. Although Coastal Carolina isn’t as dangerous as a run game as it was in 2020 and 2021, both backs averaged over five yards per rush in the nation’s 57th best rushing offense.

NCAA Football: Cure Bowl-Northern Illinois at Coastal Carolina
Grayson McCall won MVP of the Cure Bowl last December by leading Coastal Carolina to its first-ever bowl win.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Chanticleers offense is quite balanced, however, as they rank 50th in the FBS in passing yards per game. Sam Pinckney and Jared Brown are the primary receivers to spearhead the aerial attack with 917 and 782 yards on the season, respectively. Both wideouts enjoyed solid outings during the Sun Belt Championship Game, combining for 16 receptions, 154 yards, and two touchdowns in the loss to Troy.

On the defensive side of the ball, Coastal Carolina operates without its star pass rusher. All-Sun Belt defensive end/outside linebacker Josaiah Stewart entered the transfer portal following the conference championship game and already landed at Michigan. The Chanticleers are tied for 20th in the FBS in sacks per game, and they’ll look for Adrian Hope to lead the charge. The senior outside linebacker ended the regular season on a tear, registering at least half a sack in seven consecutive games.

Coastal Carolina’s defense doesn’t exhibit quite the same balance the offense does. The Chanticleers are relatively adept at limiting the run, holding opponents to 3.8 yards per carry on 130 yards per game. But the same results aren’t observed through the air. Coastal Carolina yields the seventh highest passing output in the country, and the secondary consistently allowing home run plays doomed the team down the stretch. Troy amassed 318 yards on 12 completions while James Madison attained 287 yards on 17 completions, and both of these recent opponents piled on 45+ points to end Coastal Carolina’s regular season on a sour note.

East Carolina Pirates outlook

East Carolina is finally playing in a bowl game for the first time in eight seasons. The Pirates enjoyed a stellar 2022 with quality wins over UCF and BYU, and had the kicking game been solved earlier in the year, they might be pushing the 10-win mark in Birmingham.

Tuesday marks the final collegiate game of Holton Ahlers, who holds the distinction as the AAC’s all-time leading passer. With 13,633 yards, Ahlers is 11th all-time in the category and leads all active quarterbacks in career passing output. The senior has been a serviceable quarterback in Greenville for quite some time, but in 2022, Ahlers vastly improved in every category. The senior displays an average of 284 passing yards per game with 23 touchdowns, and five interceptions on a career-best 67 percent completion rate. And while he doesn’t exactly present the mobility of Grayson McCall, the 6’4”, 230 pound Ahlers is as tough as they come and isn’t easy to bring down inside or outside the pocket.

Ahlers works behind one of the sturdier lines in college football, benefiting from a unit which only allowed multiple sacks on three occasions this year. They’ll look to counter Coastal Carolina’s pass rush and stout run defense to spark the nation’s 23rd ranked offense.

ECU presents formidability in both facets of the offense. In the ground game, the Pirates offer as fast a running back as there is in college football. Keaton Mitchell can run a sub-4.30 second 40-yard dash and that speed is evident when finding open space. Mitchell broke 160 yards in more than a third of his games this year, picking up 7.4 yards per carry due to his lethal breakaway potential. The sophomore ended his season particularly hot with an outing featuring 222 rushing yards, 78 receiving yards, and four total touchdowns in a shootout win over Temple.

NCAA Football: Houston at East Carolina
Keaton Mitchell leads all college football players with at least 150 attempts in yards per carry at 7.4.
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Countering Mitchell’s speed with be a focal point for Coastal Carolina’s run defense, but the Chanticleers must also solve the issues ECU’s talented receiver trio can cause. Isaiah Winstead broke 1,000 yards in the regular season and C.J. Johnson is 67 away from the millennium mark. Add Georgia transfer Jaylen Johnson to the mix, and ECU attacks with plenty of size in its deep receiving corps. With Ahlers serving as the facilitator of it all, the Pirates are 16th in the FBS in passing — proving their ability to thrive through a multitude of skill position players offensively.

Coastal Carolina is 125th in passing defense, but the Chanticleers aren’t even the lowest ranked team in this matchup. East Carolina is dead last at 131st in the nation, permitting north of 298 yards per game. Cornerback Malik Fleming and strong safety Julius Wood have shown signs of promise in the secondary this year, forcing a collective eight turnovers this year. ECU boasts the ninth best turnover margin in the country at a +10, but the Pirates can’t rely on interceptions against a Chanticleer offense which hardly throws them. Thus, improving coverage schemes will be emphasized in Birmingham.

Elsewhere on the defense, the Pirates are quite stellar. They bring a top 20 run defense into this matchup with a litany of great tacklers from the linebacking corps, including Myles Berry and Jeremy Lewis. While the team doesn’t offer one overwhelmingly frightening pass rusher, the front seven plays typically well as a unit and more often than not wins the battle at the line of scrimmage.


This matchup features two strong run defenses combined with weak pass defenses. But these similarly-styled defenses are countered by offenses which remained relatively balanced throughout the season. Grayson McCall vs. Holton Ahlers is one of the best quarterback matchups of bowl season, considering what the two longtime gunslingers have accomplished at their time with their schools.

But only one quarterback can hoist the trophy. The efficiency of McCall combined with East Carolina’s persisting issues in the secondary makes for a good combination in favor of Coastal Carolina. If the Chanticleers are able to contain Mitchell and force the Pirates to pass 40+ times like Tulane did in October, that’s the formula to limiting ECU from a barrage on the scoreboard.

Prediction: Coastal Carolina 34, East Carolina 24