- If N.C. State quarterback Ryan Finley can outduel Clemson freshman Trevor Lawrence on Saturday, the Wolfpack could give the Tigers a real fight in Death Valley.
North Carolina State at Clemson (-17)
Sat. 10/20, 3:30 p.m. ET
Three things to know before betting on N.C. State-Clemson:
1. Since becoming head coach of N.C. State before the 2013 season, Dave Doeren has gone 3-2 against the spread versus Clemson, all straight-up losses. But each of the last two years against Tigers teams that went on to make the College Football Playoff, Doeren's Wolfpack have covered, losing by seven points as a 20-point underdog on the road in 2016, and losing by a touchdown again last year as a 10-point dog at home.
Both N.C. State and Clemson have had two weeks to prepare for this year's game in Death Valley. That's a situation in which Doeren's teams have thrived. Since he took over, the Wolfpack are 10-2 against the spread when coming off a bye, beating the spread by an average of 6.8 points in those 12 games.
This year, Doeren has one of the stronger offenses in college football. N.C. State has the 21st best offense in FBS, as the unit averages 480.2 yards per game. As the Wolfpack travel to take on the heavily favored Tigers, there's a solid precedent for this offense covering as a 17-point dog. Since the beginning of the 2014 season, road underdogs averaging at least 440 yards per game are 129-62 against the spread when coming off a game in which they gained at least 525 yards in their previous game. (Two weeks ago, N.C. State put up 533 yards against a strong Boston College defense in a 28-23 victory.)
2. The Clemson offense has been largely oriented around the run this year. The Tigers rank second in the country with 6.96 yards per carry, and sophomore running back Travis Etienne has ascended to the outskirts of Heisman conversations. He's averaging 9.2 yards per carry, has punched in 11 touchdowns on the ground and is fifth in FBS with 126.8 rushing yards per game. His masterpiece was a 27-carry, 203-yard, three-touchdown performance in a 27-23 home win against Syracuse three weeks ago, a rare instance of a team mounting a double-digit fourth-quarter comeback primarily by running the ball.
The reason Clemson found itself trailing a team it was favored to beat by 24.5 points in the first place, however, was poor quarterback play. By naming freshman Trevor Lawrence the starting quarterback over incumbent Kelly Bryant, which caused Bryant to transfer, Dabo Swinney both raised the ceiling for his offense (Lawrence is an all-world talent) and lowered the floor (he's inexperienced, and Bryant's departure removed depth at the position). Lawrence was ineffective in that Syracuse game before being sidelined with a minor injury, and backup Chase Brice was similarly feckless, save for a couple late-game throws. If Lawrence is shaky against N.C. State, which fields a better defense than Syracuse, there could be trouble. The Wolfpack is fifth in the country in time-of-possession percentage (59.3%) and likely won't leave time for Etienne to carry the Tigers back from a deficit.
3. While Clemson relies heavily on the run, N.C. State lives and dies by the pass: 68% of the Wolfpack's yards have come through the air, the 20th-highest percentage in the nation. Leading that attack is senior quarterback Ryan Finley, who leads the ACC with 324.2 passing yards per game, over 70 yards more than second-ranked Deondre Francois of FSU. Finley's strong performances have allowed State to hang with Clemson each of the last two seasons, and last year's outing was especially impressive. He completed 31 of 50 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns (and two interceptions) in a 38-31 loss. It was the most passing yards and points allowed by the Tigers all year.
Finley is better than he was last season, and Clemson's pass defense is not. While the 2017 Tigers allowed only 5.7 yards per pass attempt (second in FBS), this year's secondary is allowing 6.8 yards per attempt, ranking 46th in the nation. The strength of Clemson's pass D is its fearsome pass rush, which ranks fourth in the country with a sack rate of 11.8%. But Finley and his O-line are third nationally in opposing sack rate, The quarterback has been taken down on only 1.1% of his dropbacks. With Finley facing a (relatively) vulnerable set of defensive backs, N.C. State should keep this one within two scores, and could give the Tigers a legitimate scare for a third consecutive season.
Pick: N.C. State +17
Confidence Level: High (on a scale of Low/Moderate/High/Very High/Extremely High)