- NC State is known for blowing it on the big stage, a big part of why it remains in such a long ACC title drought. Can it change the narrative this year against Clemson?
How good is NC State? How long is a piece of string?
Judging strictly by the numbers, this year’s Wolfpack are pretty, pretty good. They’re 5–0. Apart from a five-point win over a solid Boston College team on Saturday, all of their victories have come by double digits. Sixth-year quarterback and double-masters-degree-pursuer Ryan Finley, who started his college tenure at Boise State back in the black-and-white days of 2013, has been arguably the best quarterback in the ACC so far this season.
It’s like a piece of string that looks pretty long. It’s a piece of a string that has proven longer than other not-very large strings. All that is nice and good, but we’re not much closer to our answer here. We want to know if this piece of string can hold its own against established, proven pieces of string.
Back to football. As we all know so very well, a bare-bones statistic like wins and losses is meaningless without context. And the context surrounding that 5–0 mark doesn’t do the Wolfpack any favors. The best teams NC State has played this year are Virginia and Boston College—not exactly powerhouses. The one early-season test was supposed to come against West Virginia, but that game was rained out due to Hurricane Florence, and the two teams couldn’t agree upon a viable make-up date.
Think of a piece of string—we’re running with this metaphor—that was supposed to be compared to a pretty big piece of string, only for an awful weather event to prevent the comparison from ever happening. Again, we can’t say with any conviction how long our piece of string is compared to other pieces of string. One thing we do know, though, is that this piece of string has proven shorter than other long pieces of string in marquee string vs. string matches year after year. Which brings us to our next point: the simple but pertinent fact that NC State is NC State.
Unbelievably, NC State has not won even a share of a division title, regular-season ACC title or ACC tournament title in football, men’s or women’s basketball and baseball in 26-plus years. The decades-long barren streak has seen the advent of the wonderfully self-deprecating #NCStateS--- hashtag on Twitter—the real thing uses the real word, not the dashes.
Any promising NC State team is immediately met with skepticism in place of optimism. And that’s not just by other ACC people drunk with schadenfreude after watching the Wolfpack self-destruct year after year; it’s by poll voters, too. At No. 16, NC State is the lowest-ranked undefeated Power 5 team by a mile. No undefeated Power 5 team has been ranked as low at this point in the season since Texas Tech in 2013. The other three teams meeting that criterion this year are ranked No. 1, 2 and 3 in the country.
And No. 3 is Clemson, which will host NC State in an afternoon matchup in Death Valley on Saturday. NC State has an opportunity for a monumental upset—Clemson is a 17.5-point favorite—that would change the conversation surrounding this team entirely. They’d go from a nice early-season story to immediately being in the playoff picture discussion. The cancelled West Virginia game would switch from a missed opportunity for a statement win to a fortunate boost bringing them closer to a potential undefeated season.
But above all else, the win would be a beautifully cathartic for a fanbase that is so used to watching its teams shrivel on the big stage. Almost exactly a year ago, NC State traveled to play No. 9 Notre Dame in Week 8 with a 6–1 record and a No. 14 ranking. It was an opportunity to take that proverbial next step, and it started off pleasant enough—a 7–0 and 14–7 lead before a manageable 21–14 deficit at halftime.
That’s when the football gods remembered that this is NC State, and good things don’t happen to NC State. The Irish would pull away and win 35–14. The very next week, NC State dropped a difficult 38–31 game to Clemson at home and just like that, another title-less season was all but assured.
In all likelihood, the same thing will happen on Saturday. NC State will likely lose on the road to a top-10 team. But that also might happen, because we really have no idea how good this iteration of NC State is or how long that damn piece of string is. Are they another hot-starting Wolfpack squad that will falter down the stretch and fail to challenge for the ACC Atlantic title? Maybe. Are they the group destined to end the 27-year title-less drought?
How long is that piece of string?