After a disappointing 4-8 season in which it went a dismal 1-7 in ACC play, the NC State football team is left scratching its head, looking for answers as to how to bring the program back up to a competitive level. Several coaching changes have been made since the conclusion of the season, and there are a number of personnel issues that need to be addressed heading into spring practice.
For decades, the NC State football program has found itself incapable of getting over the hump and winning the ACC championship. Since the late Bo Rein won the ACC Championship with the Wolfpack in 1979, NC State has gone through a string of coaches that have put up mediocre season after mediocre season. There have been a few highlights, such as the 2002 team that had coach Chuck Amato and future NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Philip Rivers, which went 11-3 and defeated Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl. But not even Chuck and Philip could get State over the hump.
No matter what coaching changes occur in the next few years and no matter what kind of talented players come in through recruiting, one thing for sure needs to change: NC State needs to start scheduling a tougher nonconference schedule. This year, NC State’s nonconference schedule consisted of East Carolina (4-8), Western Carolina (3-9), West Virginia (5-7) and Ball State (5-7). Those teams finished with a combined record of 17-31, and none of them finished with a winning record. NC State’s nonconference schedule was ranked 114th out of 130 teams by TeamRankings and was given an overall rating of -13.3. It was the worst nonconference strength of schedule in the ACC.
For one, scheduling a tougher nonconference schedule makes the season more entertaining for the fans. Let’s be honest, nobody wants to watch our football team play non-competitive teams, especially when they are played at noon in 100-degree heat. Coaches and players wonder why fans leave games at halftime early in the season, but the answer is pretty obvious: people have better things to do than break a sweat watching a game that nobody is interested in watching.
More opportunities to assess strengths and weaknesses
Another benefit to a stronger non-conference schedule is that playing against quality nonconference opponents allows the football team to better assess its strengths and weaknesses. After the first two games of the season, things were looking bright for NC State. It had won by a combined 69 points, and there weren’t many negatives surrounding the football program. The problem is that those first two games were against ECU and Western Carolina, two teams that ended up going a combined 7-17 in 2019. When the Pack got a chance to play a Power Five opponent in West Virginia, it didn’t have any idea how good it was, and as a result, the Pack got it handed to them, losing 44-27. By playing more quality opponents earlier in the season, the team is better able to assess strengths and weaknesses so that it can improve as the competition gets tougher later in the season.
Playing a tougher, more interesting nonconference also helps with recruiting. As mentioned earlier, players, like fans, probably aren’t as excited to play against non-competitive teams at noon in 100-degree heat. Games that are against tougher, more quality opponents, however, may start at later times in the day and may be nationally televised. In the past, NC State has played season-opening games against quality opponents at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte and at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Recruits would much rather play in games where they get that kind of exposure.
In the 2020 season, the Wolfpack opens up at home against Mississippi State (6-7 in 2019), a quality SEC team that will provide a good measuring stick game to start the year. Other games include a road game against Troy (5-7 in 2019), home against Delaware (5-7 in 2019) and home against Liberty (8-5 in 2019). Liberty is also a good football program and will provide a challenge for the Wolfpack.
While not a gauntlet, next year’s nonconference slate features slightly more quality teams than this year, and as a result, the NC State football team will have improved after going through the nonconference portion of the schedule. In years to come, the football program will continually need to schedule not just one quality non-conference opponent, but multiple quality nonconference opponents so that the coaches and players get the competition they need to improve on a week-to-week basis. The Pack should have at least one game against a Power Five team every year, but it should try to schedule more teams like Appalachian State, teams that aren’t in the Power Five conferences but still provide tough competition. Plus, playing a game against App would be highly entertaining for fans.
According to TeamRankings, there have been two seasons in the last decade that NC State has had a positive nonconference SOS rating: 2010 and 2017. In both of those seasons, NC State finished the year ranked in the AP Top 25. People can say what they want about what NC State needs to do to fix the football program, whether it be coaching or with players. But no matter who the coaches or the players are, this program will never get over the hump until it gets the courage to start scheduling a tougher nonconference schedule so it can reach its fullest potential.