COLUMBIA - On the surface, it could look like a glorified bye week. Another directional team from a lower conference among the college football hierarchy. Another yawn sandwiched between games against SEC opponents.

Looks can be deceiving, and they are with East Carolina. The Pirates return star quarterback Shane Carden, who led them to a 10-3 record and Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl win last fall.

East Carolina would be dangerous enough on its own. Its spot on the schedule is downright treacherous. South Carolina will play big games this fall - a trip to Clemson among them - but none bigger than Sept. 13 when it hosts Georgia with SEC East title stakes potentially on the line.

Before preparing for the Bulldogs, the Gamecocks can't overlook the Pirates. South Carolina will be heavy favorites against East Carolina, as it should be. Regardless, ECU has the talent to make things a little too close for comfort if USC is looking ahead.

Here's what to expect from East Carolina this fall.

Opponent bio

Team: East Carolina

Coach: Ruffin McNeill (18-8, third season)

Returning starters: 9 (five offense, four defense)

2013 record: 10-3, 6-2 Conference USA; second place C-USA

Scoring offense: 40.2 points per game (9th in country)

Scoring defense: 24.8 points against per game (49th)

Series: South Carolina leads 12-5

Last meeting: South Carolina beat East Carolina 48-10 on Sept. 8, 2012. You may remember that game as Dylan Thompson's unofficial coming out party. Thompson would have bigger spot starts in relief of Connor Shaw - a road win at Clemson in 2012 chief among them - but this was the first. With Shaw out because of a bruised throwing shoulder, Thompson torched the Pirates for 21-of-37 passing with 330 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Golden Nugget line: N/A

Three things to know about East Carolina

1. New surroundings: The American Athletic Conference doesn't have the same name recognition as the old Big East. Regardless, it's a step above Conference USA. There is no more BCS, but the Pirates will enter their first season under the flag of what would've been a BCS conference in another era. It's not the SEC, but East Carolina can no longer be considered the proverbial "mid-major" among college football.

2. Quality quarterback: The AAC is already building a solid reputation for quality quarterback play. Last year, it was Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater, both first-round picks in last month's NFL Draft. Shane Carden is primed to continue where Bortles and Bridgewater left off. Carden may not be a first-round talent, but he produces big-time numbers. He completed more than 70 percent of his passes last fall for 4,139 yards, 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He finished eighth in the country in passing yards and ninth in passing touchdowns. As a senior, Carden will give his team a chance to win every time he steps onto the field.

3. Loaded non-conference schedule: East Carolina will face more challenges than simply moving up from Conference USA to the AAC. Immediately following their trip to Williams-Brice Stadium, the Pirates will travel to Virginia Tech and host North Carolina in consecutive weeks. That makes for one brutal September.

Gamecocks schedule glimpse

Week before: Texas A&M

Next week: Georgia

On the horizon: at Vanderbilt