N.C. State coach Dave Doeren is doing all he can to build the Pack into an ACC championship contender, but there are forces that could work against it.
The Pack’s football history.
The other five teams in the ACC’s Atlantic Division.
The Clemson problem is everyone’s problem in the ACC. Pittsburgh did beat the Tigers two years ago. Syracuse did it last season.
“We didn’t play a perfect game by any means,” Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey said Thursday at the ACC Football Kickoff. “It was just football. Anything can happen.”
But happening more than once in the season? Clemson is 40-4 the last three years and has gone 8-0, 7-1 and 7-1 in the ACC. The Tigers have won three straight ACC titles, been in the College Football Playoff all three years and won the 2016 national championship.
“They’ve got a lot more things than we’ve got,” Doeren said Thursday. “But I know our players believe they can play with Clemson and our players believe they have to beat Clemson to be the best. They’ve earned that role as the team to beat, but I don’t think anyone on our team would say they’re afraid to play ‘em. We all know we have to make more plays to beat ‘em.
“But they have the best facilities probably in our league right now. We’re trying to do a little bit more with less, but we look forward to that challenge every year.”
Wolfpack quarterback Ryan Finley believes Doeren, entering his sixth season at NCSU, is developing the program to the point it can compete with Clemson on a yearly basis.
“I think we’re there,” Finley said Thursday. “After a couple of really close games, I think we’re there. I think that’s kind of the driving force for us right now, how close we’ve been.”
The Wolfpack suffered the ultimate gut-punch loss at Clemson in 2016, missing a short field goal on the final play of regulation that would have won it, and then the Tigers’ picking off a Finley pass in overtime to seal a 24-17 win.
The Pack was 4-0 in the ACC a year ago and ranked 20th when it faced Clemson at Carter-Finley Stadium, losing 38-31. Finley passed for 338 yards and three scores, but an illegal-shift penalty late in the game hurt the Pack, negating a completion, and Finley’s fourth-down pass was picked off in the end zone.
“We’re a play away in two games and it comes down to us executing to beat them and not them beating us,” Doeren said. “A missed kick here and a penalty there and maybe we beat them two years in a row. That didn’t happen, so we didn’t.”
Clemson’s win was its sixth straight in the series, and the Tigers have won 13 of the past 14.
A later loss to Wake Forest left the Pack 6-2 and second in the Atlantic. But there was a lot for the Pack to like about the 2017 season — wins over Florida State and Louisville in the ACC, and a Sun Bowl win over Arizona State to finish 9-4 and 23rd in the final AP ranking.
The Pack then had seven players taken in the NFL Draft and Bradley Chubb was the nation’s best defensive lineman, all of which had an immediate impact on recruiting, Doeren said.
“I can talk about our blueprint and here’s what I did at Wisconsin and here’s what I did at Northern Illinois and here’s how it works,” Doeren said. “But until you do it here it’s just lip service.
“So now it’s like here’s the guys we took (and) their before-and-after pictures — freshman, sophomore, junior and senior. Here’s the guy at the (NFL) podium. Now it’s not a blueprint anymore. It’s something that lives, it breathes. Now I can send them pictures of these guys. If you can prove what you’re all about as opposed to just talk about it, it makes a huge difference in recruiting.”
The Pack’s 2019 recruiting class is rated 20th nationally in 247Sports’ composite team rankings. N.C. State’s 2018 class was 26th. Regardless of the rankings, Doeren and the Pack will need to continue to string together strong classes to contend in the Atlantic and ACC.
“Everything was a fight when we first got here,” Doeren said of recruiting. “When I came in, people looked at me as a Yankee, I think, even though I’m from the Midwest. I had to prove myself to people. I had to build relationships and it takes time. .. And now we have those relationships and you’re see that in our recruiting.”
But it’s still an uphill battle. History suggests that while the Pack has had varying football success through the years, sustaining it has been and could continue to be a problem.
Of the seven Wolfpack head coaches since the Pack’s last ACC championship, in 1979 under the late Bo Rein, only one has had a winning ACC record: Dick Sheridan, who was 31-18-1 from 1986-1992. Only once has N.C. State been nationally ranked in successive seasons — 24th in 1991 and 17th in 1992.
And the other Atlantic Division teams aren’t sitting idly by. Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson, for example, talked Thursday of all the facility improvements that have been made in his program.
Clawson also talked of how he often has awakened on game days with an uneasy feeling in his stomach, knowing what his team would face — especially the defensive fronts in the Atlantic, especially Clemson.
“They’re the top of the top,” Syracuse coach Dino Babers said. “It might be the deepest, most talented D-line of all time this season.”
Finley could have left for the NFL after last season and given the Pack an eighth draftee. But he’s back, hoping to rewrite some of that Wolfpack football history.
“I don’t get that feeling with anybody in the program that we have arrived,” Finley said. “I think we’re proud of what we accomplished last year because of where this program has been in the past, but everyone would agree we’re not where we want to be because we haven’t won an ACC championship yet and that’s our goal.”