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It's that time of year again. In a few short weeks, Carter-Finley Stadium will be filled, and the Wolfpack will be taking the field against ECU. However, we still have a little ways to go until we get there, so in the meantime, let’s do what fans and the media do best: speculate! 

This NC State team really is an interesting bunch. It has a very consistent set of expectations from the college football world, but at the same time, it also has the potential to really perform above and beyond the seven or eight games it is projected to win this year. What head coach Dave Doeren and his staff are looking to do this year is to develop the young talent on the roster (there’s a lot) and start making strides to begin to take the next step as a program. 

State of the ACC

Clearly, there is a power vacuum in the ACC right now. Up until recently, the ACC typically started the season with at least a couple of teams that could win the conference championship. Florida State, Virginia Tech, and Clemson have been the top teams competing for the conference crown since 2004, with even a couple of outliers like Wake Forest and Georgia Tech winning a couple of titles as well. 

In 2015, that all changed when Clemson began their current run of ACC championships. After Clemson took the next step for their program and began to compete with Alabama for National Championships, it left the rest of the ACC in disarray. Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and even Florida State all had their programs regress to the point where they fell behind NC State and Syracuse, which is the point the ACC is at today.  Currently, the Orange and the Wolfpack are attempting to catch up to Clemson, with both schools taking steps to reach Clemson's elite level. Whether or not it can be achieved is still up in the air, but in the near future, Syracuse and NC State are the only ones who could possibly steal the ACC away from Clemson. 

Doeren’s Struggles

Doeren has done a phenomenal job at NC State. Although some Wolfpack fans won’t admit it, NC State’s identity as a basketball school is slowly starting to gravitate toward football, and Doeren is a big reason for that. Doeren took what was a program in complete disarray after the conclusion of Tom O’Brien’s tenure as head coach and slowly but surely began to right the ship. Teams under Jacoby Brissett and then recently Ryan Finley continued to improve under Doeren, eventually to the point where Wolfpack fans can enjoy a quality product on the field and a program typically ranked in the top 25.

While NC State has enjoyed success during Doeren’s tenure, the Wolfpack has failed to execute in one major area, which is to win big games. Arguably, Doeren’s biggest win to date came in 2017 in a ranked matchup against Lamar Jackson’s Louisville Cardinals. It was a prime-time Thursday night game that really showcased what NC State Football could be. Carter-Finley was rocking, and the Wolfpack’s stars, Ryan Finley and Bradley Chubb, had some of the best games of their careers. However, when the season came to an end, Louisville found itself not even close to being ranked in the top 25. In fact, under Doeren, NC State has never beat a team that finished the year in the top 25. Early on in Doeren’s tenure, it was not expected for the Pack to knock off top-25 caliber teams, but when the Pack has a team full of quality NFL prospects? The expectations increase, and fans become antsy. 

When Finley took over as quarterback, the quality of the Wolfpack’s play increased, in thanks much to Doeren and his staff’s development. However, even with the better teams under Finley, they still went 0-8 against opponents that finished the year ranked in the top 25. In 2017, the Pack won big games against Florida State and Louisville, but those teams would collapse and prove to be less talented than originally thought. 

Doeren has got the Pack to where it needs to be at this point, but it is starting to become the time where the program will begin to take its next step to try and dethrone Clemson. The Pack had a great chance to beat the Tigers in 2016 and 2017, losing both in heartbreaking fashion. I hate to break it to fans, but NC State is not going to out-recruit Clemson without beating them a couple of times, and for the Pack to pull out the upset, it’s going to take a perfect scenario. Luckily for NC State, a look into the past can help show how the program can take the next step. 

The Florida State question 

Even Florida State fans will tell you that for some reason, the Wolfpack has the Seminoles' number. During the 90s and up until Jimbo Fisher left Florida State after the 2017 season, the Seminoles were one of the elite college football programs, winning three national titles between 1993 and 2013. While perhaps not being as consistent as Clemson is currently, Florida State was the elite team to beat in the ACC for a long time. 

Rather than being consistently elite like Florida State during their run, NC State was more consistently mediocre. It’s true that the Wolfpack had some flashes of excellence with Philip Rivers and Russell Wilson, but still it could not find that elusive conference championship. Despite the difference in recruiting, talent and even coaching, the Pack found a way to give Florida State more trouble than any ACC team. It raises the question of how the Pack was able to consistently topple a team that has an advantage in every aspect of the game.

The 1998, 2002 and 2012 games against Florida State were textbook examples of how to beat a vastly superior team. In those games, the Pack pulled off victories by scores of 24-7, 17-7, and 17-16, respectively. If you look at the box scores, it paints a clear picture of how the Wolfpack won. You could break all of these games down, but the key takeaways were: 

1. Superior Quarterback play

2. Limiting turnovers

3. Forcing turnovers

4. Control time of possession

5. Hosting the game in Raleigh

At the end of the day, these factors are simply keys to winning any football game, but the point is if the Pack wants to finally dethrone Clemson, then every single one of these things must happen. It is true that the Wolfpack could pull off the upset in Death Valley, but as seen in last year’s game, it is much easier to win in Carter-Finley.

Even if the Pack is able to sneak out a win, it will still be a challenge to win enough games to take the ACC. Clemson is not going to lose more than one game in the regular season, so the Pack cannot let more than one game slip. But before the Pack talks about winning the conference, it has to take down the Tigers first.