North Carolina State gets a chance to wade into the shallows in September before taking the dive into the deep end in the second half of the season. That deep end is coming after Wake Forest. Clemson, Boston College and Florida State will signal the true rough patch in the ACC.
After a break dead center six games in, and with a good chance at being 5-1 or 6-0, the Pack will travel to Winston-Salem to take on the Demon Deacons. I have NC State at 5-1, as I don’t see them getting wins vs. both Louisville and Virginia Tech. Split those, and they’re in good shape going into Winston-Salem.
Game 7: at Wake Forest Demon Deacons, October 24
Ask VA Tech how it feels to be the lone win for Wake in ACC play. The Hokies played an absolutely pitiful game against the Demon Deacons last season. That is what it will take to lose this game. Wake is down, in a rut, a funk. Call it what you want, but off a bye, NC State should handle this game easily. I see them back on track, above .500 in the ACC.
NC State 6-1 (2-1 ACC)
Game 8: vs. Clemson Tigers, October 31
Thus begins the stretch of the season I don’t see going the way of the Wolfpack. Clemson destroyed NC State last season. The Pack had 154 yards of total offense. Most good offenses can break that mark in the first half. I will boldly say that State will get on the board this time. Clemson is missing key components from their stellar defense from a year ago. This game is in Raleigh on Homecoming Weekend. Fans expect more, and the team should expect more. No matter how hyped the Wolfpack are, they still have to deal with Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and an offense that will be too much for them.
NC State 6-2 (2-2 ACC)
Game 9: at Boston College Eagles, November 7
I have NC State, Boston College, and Louisville neck-and-neck in the Atlantic race. All the games involving these three should be down to the wire. The Eagles may struggle on offense this season without a workhorse like running back Andre Williams or quarterback Tyler Murphy. The Eagles do return their leading running back in Jon Hilliman. Though not flashy, or particularly scary since they came to the ACC, BC is still a team that can hang in with anyone. The Eagles have hovered around .500 for several years, and the winner of this game will make a stride in the right direction of getting eight or nine wins. This three game section of State’s schedule could be a skid that puts them in a hole in the ACC standings.
NC State 6-3 (2-3 ACC)
Game 10: at Florida State Seminoles, November 14
The good news: Jameis Winston is gone to the NFL. The bad news: FSU has seven returning starters on a defense that will prove to be the third straight in a row to test the Wolfpack. If the purpose of the early non-conference games was to get underclassmen some playing time, then this stretch’s purpose is to see exactly what the Wolfpack are made of. Taking the leap to Atlantic relevancy will include winning one of these three games. BC will be the easiest of the three, with this road game in Tallahassee being the toughest. NC State hung 41 points on the ‘Noles last year, so expect FSU to be after revenge for that. Jacoby Brissett served notice to the rest of the ACC that he was a true threat vs. FSU last year. For NC State to stand a chance he will have to top that effort this time. The defense will have to contain FSU quarterback Everett Golson and company, or NC State will continue to fall in the conference standings. I think they’ll do just that.
NC State 6-4 (2-4 ACC)
Game 11: vs. Syracuse Orange, November 21
The simple cure for a losing streak is coming home and facing two teams to finish the season that will have trouble stopping anyone. Brissett and company should feast on Syracuse and run or pass as they see fit. The Wolfpack and its faithful will be amped up for these games as they will be the first home games in November, and the last chances to see the red and white at home. I have NC State bowl eligible at this juncture of the season, so they’re playing for postseason prominence now. Four losses in conference won’t win the division, but adding a few wins would make State an attractive team to several bowls.
NC State 7-4 (3-4 ACC)
Game 12: vs. North Carolina Tar Heels, November 28
NC State will finish strong against a UNC team that won’t be able to slow them down. If State can hold the Tar Heels offense at bay (at all) they will win the game. UNC remembers being decimated at home last year, so turnabout is fair play. The Heels will want to return the favor and spoil whatever bowl aspirations the Wolfpack have. If NC State does get to six or seven wins by this point, then UNC can keep them from improving on last year, which would be a major letdown given the talent NC State is returning. The defense won the game last year in Chapel Hill, and it should play out the same in Raleigh. Run game all day, hold UNC down, and create turnovers. Lather, rinse, repeat. NC State wins by a couple touchdowns.
NC State 8-4 (4-4 ACC)
NC State has true symmetry going in their game locations. Complete with the mid-season break, the second half is the mirror image of the first. If only the competition were symmetrical, they could take a breather, but alas, minus the road game against Wake Forest (even that could be dangerous. Wake will shock someone this season) the real peak of the season comes late with Clemson, at Boston College, and at Florida State.
Once again the separator between Clemson, Florida State, and the rest of their Atlantic brethren will be who is going to step up between Louisville & NC State to contend. Boston College seems to hang around seven wins a season as well, but if someone is getting to double digit wins outside the states of South Carolina or Florida, then a Friday night in Blacksburg or a trip to Chestnut Hill could be the difference.
I’m calling for NC State to get to back-to-back bowls after three straight in 2010-2012. If FSU and Clemson can make the New Year’s Six (one in the CFP) then the rest of the bowl eligible teams in the ACC can move up in tier in their postseason destinations. If State gets to 8-4, they may be in a crowded group of eight-win teams, potentially including VA Tech, Miami (FL), or Georgia Tech. In the end, a Belk or Music City Bowl vs. an SEC squad would be a nice cap to a successful season.