The question is simple, yet it means everything.
Who is N.C. State?
This is not Tom O’Brien’s team anymore. Dave Doeren has crafted the Wolfpack into his image—at least partially—but what does that look like?
Earlier this week, Clemson DC Brent Venables said the offense looks like a mixture of Northern Illinois and Wisconsin. Guard Tyler Shatley—a defensive tackle the last time the Tigers showed up in Raleigh for a game—said the defense would probably look and feel a lot like last year’s team.
But what does anybody really know about N.C. State?
It’s early in the season, so even teams that seem familiar—coaching staffs returning, players returning, schemes remaining similar, etc.—might present a bit of a challenge if they haven’t played tough opposition yet. The Wolfpack would definitely fall into that category.
According to the Sagarin ratings, N.C. State has had the 173rd-toughest schedule in the country thus far. I know the Sagarin poll has come under fire, and its overall formula is a bit flawed in the early season since it is designed to be accurate when a full schedule has been played at the conclusion of the season.
But I find the strength of schedule numbers helpful because it ranks teams from all levels of Division I athletics. For example, Richmond—the Wolfpack’s most recent opponent and an FCS school—comes in at 120th in the poll, while FBS member Louisiana Tech—the opener for State—comes in at 118th overall.
At 173, the Wolfpack’s strength of schedule is dead last in the conference after three weeks. Clemson is 14th overall in the Sagarin ratings, a crying shame to some in Tiger nation. But it is still a much more worthy opponent for Doeren’s team nonetheless.
The soft early slate, coupled with a totally new dynamic in the coaching staff, makes the stats compiled in early games virtually obsolete. The Wolfpack are fourth in the league in yards per play, just ahead of Clemson.
They have run a ton of plays, averaging 81.5 plays through two games—slightly behind the Tigers’ 85.5. The Wolfpack is second in average time of possession but sixth in seconds per play. Clemson is first in that category, playing more than five seconds quicker than N.C. State.
It might be easier to look at the areas in which N.C. State has struggled, since the concerns about the Wolfpack should theoretically be heightened against a team of Clemson’s caliber. The team is tied for last in the conference—with Clemson—in passing defense. This is an issue against the ACC’s second-most prolific passing attack, led by Tajh Boyd. N.C. State is also the most penalized team in the league at 65 yards per game, almost twice what Clemson has averaged to this point.
But the reality is that this team has performed at or around the league average in most offensive and defensive categories. Not much has jumped out and grabbed the attentions of viewers. The thing that might be most bothersome is the late drive and long field goal it took to knock off Richmond last week, perhaps in a moment of looking down the road a bit.
No matter what we know or don’t know about N.C. State, one thing is for sure. We’ll know a whole lot more at about 11:00 Thursday night.