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NC State is improving dramatically, but so is the ACC. Breakthrough in 2017?

Dave Doeren is both doing a strong job overall and appearing on hot-seat lists.

NCAA Football: Independence Bowl-North Carolina State vs Vanderbilt
Jaylen Samuels
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The ACC might have been the best league in the country last year. From the perspective of S&P+ averages, the SEC barely held onto the top spot (which is why this countdown is previewing ACC teams right now and not SEC teams yet), but if you get points for winning the national title, the Heisman, and of course the Piesman, the ACC gets the nod.

Clemson and Florida State have emerged as two of the surest things in the sport, but the strength has been the middle class. In addition to two top-six teams, five ACC teams ranked between 12th and 25th in S&P+.

This is great news for the league. But it’s making it difficult to gauge how teams are actually doing.

For most of last season, I saw vague references to NC State coach Doeren being close to the hot seat. As I sometimes get stuck in my ratings world and forget about records, this had me confused.

Doeren inherited a team that had ranked worse than 75th in S&P+ in three of its last four seasons under Tom O’Brien. The Wolfpack offense fell directionless after Russell Wilson left, and the defense was merely decent. Because of the state of the conference, they were still winning — O’Brien’s last two sub-75 teams went 15-11 — but this was a mediocre program.

The Pack ranked just 78th in Doeren’s first season but improved to 46th in 2014, 41st in 2015, and 25th last fall. The defense has improved for three consecutive years, and the offense regressed by only a bit last season* after improving the previous two years. This was a strong team that finished well, beating UNC in Chapel Hill and trouncing Vanderbilt in the Independence Bowl.

So shy in the world would Doeren be under pressure with such clear improvement? Wins. He doesn’t have a ton of them. He is 25-26 after four seasons, 22-17 if you remove the first-year reset. In O’Brien’s last four years, State was 29-22. Improvement on paper is great, but it only means so much to fans if you’re just improving enough to keep up with the conference’s improvement.

NC State left some wins on the board in 2016. The Wolfpack would’ve beaten Clemson, if not for a missed field goal. They fell to an East Carolina that would succumb to injury and finish 3-9, and they should have been kicked out of the Def. S&P+ top 25 for giving up 21 points to Boston College in an upset loss.

Still, against teams outside of the S&P+ top 15, they went 7-2, and both losses were statistically unlikely. Their postgame win expectancy, based on a game’s key stats, was 82 percent against ECU and 64 percent against BC, meaning there was only about a 6 percent chance of losing both (and a 52 percent chance of winning both).

The major problem: they played four really good teams and lost to all four. They nearly beat Clemson and Florida State but didn’t. They are not only in the best-ever version of the ACC, they were randomly placed in its best division, too. (Divisions: dumb and outdated.)

So how do we judge Doeren then? “They’re better on paper” sounds great, but it’s not reassuring if you keep leaving your stadium bummed out. (State has lost at least three home games in each of Doeren’s seasons.)

Still, using historical precedent, what can State expect? The Wolfpack have only had a handful of teams better than 2016’s since Lou Holtz left in the early 1970s. In fact, per S&P+, there have been just three, in 1979, 2002, and 2003. Only one won more than eight games.

NC State has mastered the art of being competitive and coming up short. (As a Missouri fan, I can say such a thing.) Over the last 29 seasons, they have been to 20 bowls but have won double-digit games or finished in the AP top 15 just once. State’s history has been of brief brilliance and the funks that follow.

Don’t expect much to change in 2017. State plays four teams projected 17th or better, seven in the top 40. The Pack are projected to again rank in the top 30 and again win about seven games.

There are worse fates, but the problem for Doeren is that there are better ones, too.

* That’s including the Notre Dame game in the ratings, and as that game was played in an outright monsoon, there’s a case for removing it. It probably bumped State’s defensive ranking up by 10 spots and bumped the offense down an equal amount.

NCAA Football: ACC Football Kickoff Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

2016 in review

2016 NC State statistical profile.

A quick glance at NC State’s 2016 results suggests a narrative: the Pack started 4-1, lost four in a row, then won three of four. So they fell victim to a midseason funk? Not necessarily; they fell victim to playing three elite teams (Clemson, Louisville, FSU) in four weeks, two on the road.

Even taking the unlikely losses to ECU and BC into account, State was tremendous against less-than-tremendous teams.

  • NC State vs. S&P+ top 15 (0-4): Avg. percentile performance: 52% (~top 60) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.1, NC State 5.0 (minus-1.1) | Avg. score: Opp 32, NC State 16 (minus-16)
  • NC State vs. everyone else (7-2): Avg. percentile performance: 83% (~top 20) | Avg. yards per play: NC State 6.1, Opp 4.6 (plus-1.5) | Avg. score: NC State 32, Opp 19 (plus-13)

The offense was problematic in games against good competition. The Pack scored 17, 13, 20, and 13 points in top-15 games, getting truly thumped only once (54-13 to Louisville) but otherwise remaining competitive enough to lose in frustrating fashion.

Will the experienced offense find another gear?


NC State offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Last winter, Matt Canada became one of the hottest assistant coaches in college football. His Pitt offense ranked fourth in Off. S&P+, and it got him hired by LSU.

A year earlier, Canada was getting pushed out of Raleigh by Doeren. Maybe the two didn’t see eye-to-eye, but in two years, Canada had improved the State offense from 90th in Off. S&P+ to 35th. It was a confusing move.

Eliah Drinkwitz’s first NC State offense was, considering the circumstances, fine. It was good against lesser teams — the Wolfpack did score 33 on Mike Elko’s excellent Wake Forest defense and put up 41 against Vanderbilt — and some of the regression could be explained by a quarterback change and the loss of three excellent linemen.

Drinkwitz is a Gus Malzahn disciple, and his tactical flexibility was fascinating. He basically created a brand new, H-Backish position for Jaylen Samuels and gave him 81 pass targets and 33 carries. (I followed Backing The Pack’s lead and listed his position as JAYLEN in the spreadsheet at the bottom of this preview.) He gave slot receiver Nyheim Hines 60 targets and 13 carries. He gave running back Matthew Dayes 249 carries and 41 targets.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at North Carolina State
Nyheim Hines
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Drinkwitz offense identifies top play-makers and gets them the ball in as many ways as possible. With Samuels and Hines back, that should continue. But Dayes’ departure opens up the backfield. That might not be the end of the world, as the run game wasn’t very effective. Drinkwitz attempted balance on standard downs, calling run plays 61 percent of the time, but State ranked 78th in standard-downs success rate.

State got away with falling behind the chains because quarterback Ryan Finley was so good at catching back up. Finley’s passer rating was at its best on second down — he completed 68 percent then, with a 148 passer rating — which suggests good decision-making from Finley and strong play-calling from Drinkwitz. State ranked 16th in passing-downs success rate and created third-and-manageables.

Be it Hines, Samuels, senior Dakwa Nichols, or junior Reggie Gallaspy II, a reliable ball carrier needs to emerge. The return of four line starters (including senior all-conference guard Tony Adams) should help. State’s line will likely start Adams and four juniors, so it should improve this year and again in 2018.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Syracuse
Ryan Finley
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

If the run game can bring a little more efficiency, that could create more dam-busters. State was so busy catching up to the chains that big-play opportunities were a rarity. Non-QBs averaged just 4.7 yards per carry, and while Samuels and Hines combined for 98 receptions, they only averaged 11.1 yards per catch.

There was an emphasis on efficiency and horizontal passing that did occasionally open up big plays. Wideouts Stephen Louis, Bra’Lon Cherry, Kelvin Harmon, and Maurice Trowell did catch a combined 101 balls for 1,723 yards (17.1 per catch). But Finley averaged only 12.1 yards per completion against top-15 teams, when Dayes averaged just 4.3 yards per carry. There was no pop.

Continuity is a major plus. Louis, Harmon, and Trowell return (as does 2015 contributor JuMichael Ramos), and Finley and Drinkwitz are both in their second seasons in major roles. There’s potential for both efficiency and explosiveness; the task is to have both against really good defenses.


NC State defensive radar

I noted in last year’s preview that letting Canada go but keeping defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable was confusing. The Wolfpack defense had improved for two straight years, but it was lagging behind the offense.

That changed in 2016. The Wolfpack would have had a top-30 defense even without the hurricane game against Notre Dame, and they had one of the most punishing run defenses in the country.

That’s not going to change in 2017, not with the top five linemen and top three linebackers back. The defense was lucky from an injury perspective — of the 20 defenders to average at least 0.8 tackles per game, 13 played in every game, and only one missed more than three games — and that probably won’t continue, but for the front six at least, depth means it probably won’t matter.

NCAA Football: Miami at North Carolina State
Bradley Chubb (9) and Justin Jones (27)
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

The tackle trio of Justin Jones, B.J. Hill, and Eurndraus Bryant was immovable, which freed up play-makers in every direction. End Bradley Chubb had 21.5 tackles for loss (sixth in FBS), 10 sacks, and three forced fumbles last year, while fellow ends Kentavius Street and Darian Roseboro combined for 21 and 12.5, respectively. Primary linebackers Airius Moore and Jerod Fernandez added 18 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, and nine passes defensed.

State disrupted the run as well as anyone, ranking seventh in rushing success rate, 21st in power success rate, and 26th in stuff rate. Adjust for opponent, and you’ve got a defense that ranked 12th in Rushing S&P+. It would almost be disappointing if the Pack didn’t move into that top 10 this year.

William & Mary v North Carolina State
Airius Moore and friends
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Of course, opponents figured out that they shouldn’t run — State faced runs just 47 percent of the time on standard downs, 125th in FBS — and found more luck throwing. That will continue. State ranked 39th in passing success rate, and while big-play prevention was a strength, a quick passing game was a good antidote for State’s awesome run defense and aggressive pass rush.

This is problematic, considering the Pack have to replace three of their top four safeties (second-round draft pick Josh Jones and nickels Dravious Wright and Niles Clark) and corner Jack Tocho.

There is a senior presence with the return of safety Shawn Boone and corner Mike Stevens, but State will have to rely on less proven pieces in the back. Either sophomore Nick McCloud, redshirt freshman James Valdez, or converted receiver Johnathan Alston will likely start opposite Stevens at corner, while the other safety roles will go to some combination of unproven juniors (Dexter Wright, Freddie Phillips Jr.) and sophomores (Jarius Morehead, Trae Meadows, Tim Kidd-Glass).

A drop-off is inevitable, and the magnitude will determine how much State gets to take advantage of this run defense.

Special Teams

If you remember one play from NC State’s 2016, it is probably a missed field goal. With two seconds remaining in Death Valley, freshman kicker Kyle Bambard had a 33-yard kick to beat eventual national champion Clemson but pushed it wide. State lost in OT.

That was just one kick, but it was a strong indicator. State ranked 116th in Special Teams S&P+ last season, thanks mostly to miserable production from the legs. Bambard missed four field goals under 40 yards and three PATs, and only 22 percent of his kickoffs reached the end zone. Punter A.J. Cole III fared better, averaging 41.3 yards, but State still ranked just 77th punt efficiency.

Nyheim Hines is an excellent kick returner. I just listed all of State’s known special teams strengths.

2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep vs. South Carolina 36 2.7 56%
9-Sep Marshall 101 21.3 89%
16-Sep Furman NR 31.6 97%
23-Sep at Florida State 3 -18.8 14%
30-Sep Syracuse 60 8.9 70%
5-Oct Louisville 14 -6.1 36%
14-Oct at Pittsburgh 33 -0.9 48%
28-Oct at Notre Dame 17 -7.8 33%
4-Nov Clemson 6 -10.3 28%
11-Nov at Boston College 76 9.4 71%
18-Nov at Wake Forest 64 4.5 60%
25-Nov North Carolina 38 5.4 62%
Projected S&P+ Rk 27
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 51 / 27
Projected wins 6.6
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 3.8 (50)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 46 / 40
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 2 / 2.8
2016 TO Luck/Game -0.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 71% (83%, 58%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 8.5 (-1.5)

Every fan base deserves that feeling of breakthrough occasionally, and that makes the NC State job a tricky one. The Wolfpack are consistently good but never experience true success, and because Doeren hasn’t changed that, either overall or in single-game upsets — at NCSU, he’s 0-15 against P5 teams that finished with at least nine wins and 25-11 against everybody else — he is facing more pressure than his performance warrants.

Fair or unfair, though, it’s not going to change. Odds are in favor of State having another of its better teams and again finishing with seven or eight wins.

Is there a chance for a breakthrough? Absolutely. Few teams can boast this level of experience, and the combination of Drinkwitz’s positionless offense with a dynamite front seven gives the Wolfpack a combination of uniqueness and proven quality. They nearly beat the two best teams on this year’s schedule last year, and they get a revenge opportunity against Louisville.

Experience creates extra pressure, though: this team will have to rebuild its offense and replace Samuels next year. Win now, or start over again.

Team preview stats

All power conference preview data to date.