Saturday won’t be the biggest game of Dave Doeren’s tenure to date, nor the biggest of this season. There are better opponents yet to come than South Carolina. If all goes well for N.C. State, there will be much more on the line.
Still, it’s a chance to post a high-visibility win over an SEC opponent, and more than that, an opportunity to get what could be a potentially historic season off to the right start with a big win – something N.C. State has generally lacked under Doeren and could change, potentially in a big way, this season.
After four years under Doeren, the Wolfpack is still looking for a signature win over someone other than North Carolina, and even one of the two over the Tar Heels was against the worst ACC defense in recorded human history, although it came at a critical time for the program in 2014.
A few others appear to be at that level on paper, but N.C. State beat the worst Notre Dame team in a decade, a team 4-8 Duke beat in South Bend, and the Independence Bowl win was over a Vanderbilt team that finished 6-7. The Wolfpack has come close several times – against Clemson and Florida State last season, among other narrow misses – but really has just that one win to hang its hat on in Doeren’s tenure.
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The good news for N.C. State is it will have no shortage of chances in 2017 to reverse that trend, starting Saturday in Charlotte. South Carolina isn’t the same caliber of opponent the Wolfpack will face later in the season – or at least, doesn’t appear to be at this point – but the circumstances make this a bigger game than it might be otherwise: a neutral-site opener against an SEC opponent in a situation where the Wolfpack has a history of tripping over itself.
A loss to South Carolina won’t mean the end of N.C. State’s season, but it would limit the best-case scenario – as it did for North Carolina two years ago – and leave the Wolfpack in a position where it is essentially playing from behind with no margin for error, just as the East Carolina and Boston College losses did last season.
Successfully clearing this challenge opens the door to bigger and better things for N.C. State, and a win over South Carolina creates some breathing room if the Wolfpack struggles down the road, because there is no shortage of challenges ahead: at Florida State, a Thursday night home game against Louisville, at Notre Dame (which will likely be better, because it’s hard to imagine the Irish being any worse) and home games against Clemson and North Carolina.
As long as N.C. State can take care of business against Marshall and Furman and Syracuse and Pittsburgh and Boston College and Wake Forest, the Wolfpack can afford to lose a few of the others and still come out looking pretty good at the end of the season. But it can’t afford to lose all of them. It has to start beating some teams that look better on paper.
South Carolina isn’t one of them, but everything else about the game makes it a must-win for N.C. State. Win this one, and 7-5 is within easy reach. Add one or two of those five troublesome games, and the Wolfpack will be pretty happy. Win three, and the Atlantic Division title might be in play.
It’s all out there for N.C. State, but it starts with South Carolina. Everything the Wolfpack can, might or could do this season is predicated on a win Saturday.
This is a difficult schedule from start to finish, but it comes at a good time for N.C. State. Doeren has been building toward this season since he arrived, and if his Year 5 team ends up being as good as it is capable of being, these opponents give it the chance to prove itself that another slate of South Alabamas and Old Dominions would not.
But that all starts Saturday. It may not be N.C. State’s biggest game, but the stakes are just as high as any of the bigger games that come later.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock
South Carolina vs. N.C. State
When: 3 p.m., Saturday
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte