Breaking out of the mold is a tough task in college football. In stark contrast to the parity of the NFL, in which every team can beat one another on any given Sunday, the college game is defined by the haves and the have nots — Alabama runs roughshod over everyone, Western Carolina provides easy victories for opponents and Texas is never back. That’s just the way it is.
One could avoid watching a single college game, pick winners simply by brand name and do so accurately. Very seldom does a team rise above its assigned station, buoyed by a fantastic player or an undiscovered coach, and even more seldom does it stay at that elevated level.
NC State fits into the college football landscape as a perennial seven or eight win program. It’s the team that provides many a tough contest, even threatens a major upset now and again, but never gets the job done. But with a surprising 2020 campaign, the Wolfpack looked like it was genuinely capable of greater with the talent and coaching to back up its hype. Twice now those hopes have dimmed following an encounter with the SEC. In NC State’s 2020 bowl game, Kentucky led from beginning to end by forcing special teams miscues, stifling the offense and forcing turnovers.
Saturday, after heading to Starkville, Mississippi at 1-0 via a 45-0 thrashing of USF, Mississippi State beat NC State by outperforming it on special teams, shutting down the Wolfpack rushing attack and, you guessed it, winning the turnover battle 3-0. It was a winnable game that slipped away, something that happens again and again against good competition.
A win against Mississippi State would’ve been NC State’s second SEC victory in the past 20 years, and it would’ve been NC State’s first road SEC victory since 1977. It also would’ve been a stepping stone for a team knocking on the door of the top 25 and looking to prove it could beat quality opponents. Then the bright lights came on, the Bulldogs opened the game with a 100-yard kickoff return TD, and nearly everything that could go wrong went wrong.
Offensive coordinator Tim Beck dialed up a bizarre jump pass call after the offense marched its way down the field in its first drive, which was intercepted. Then usually automatic junior kicker Christopher Dunn missed a 48-yard field goal, all facets of NC State’s offense were overrun, and NC State’s defense died by a thousand cuts as it was forced back onto the field time and time again. And that’s just the short version of the game.
Outside of the defense, the team displayed all the characteristics of one not ready for the big moment as it was punched in the mouth early never to recover. Instead of acting like it had been there before, it seemed shell-shocked once the adrenaline of the first quarter wore off, and it quickly ran out of anything resembling answers for the problems the Bulldogs provided.
The NC State that took the field Saturday was the seven or eight win NC State, despite all the offseason talk of raising the standard or aspiring to more. It’s a frustrating team, a hard-to-love team and one that will never truly be a contender. It’s a team that shouldn’t hope, much less expect, victories against teams that will finish more than a game above .500.
Now the question is: How much of this can be fixed? Is the accuracy, and better yet the vision, going to come for redshirt sophomore quarterback Devin Leary? Can the defense ever get consistent pressure on the quarterback? Who’s going to step up and be a difference-maker for the offense when it plays the best teams on its schedule? Those cracks were there last year as the Wolfpack avoided the upper echelon of college football, and now they’ve been fully exploited by a Mississippi State team that Vegas essentially had dead even with NC State.
Luckily for the Wolfpack, the sky is not falling. It has a few shots at very good teams remaining in Clemson, Miami and UNC, a few more chances to prove this program can be greater than the lot it’s been given. NC State’s 2021 edition is the best Doeren has fielded, and on paper there’s no reason it can’t be the one to finally break through and give him his signature moment. A lot of optimism surrounded this team coming into the season, and it’s not completely squandered. If the chips fall right, this could be the year.
Doesn't it feel like that every other year, though?