When N.C. State upset Florida State at home four years ago, those kind of big wins had almost become routine.
The Wolfpack’s 17-16 win over No. 3 FSU was its third straight win over a top 10 opponent and fifth in six games against a ranked opponent.
But that was in 2012. N.C. State (4-1) has lost its past seven games to top 25 foes, with Clemson responsible for three of the losses.
The Tigers (6-0), ranked No. 3 going into Saturday’s game, represent the latest chance for N.C. State to end that streak and see how it stacks up with the ACC’s best in coach Dave Doeren’s fourth season.
Doeren, who is 0-6 against top 25 teams, noted Clemson’s national ranking and stated the obvious.
“Those are always measuring-stick games,” Doeren said. “Where are we compared to where we’ve been?”
Doeren thinks his team has made strides since going 7-6 last season, even after losing quarterback Jacoby Brissett and All-ACC offensive lineman Joe Thuney to the NFL.
“I think we’re better than we’ve been,” Doeren said. “But I also think (Clemson is) better than they’ve been.”
I think we’re better than we’ve been. But I also think (Clemson is) better than they’ve been.
NC State coach Dave Doeren
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney agrees with Doeren, at least about the progress of the Wolfpack.
“I think this is the best team that coach Doeren has had,” Swinney said.
Reasons to believe
N.C. State has had its moments through five games. The defense has made strides since a 33-30 loss at East Carolina on Sept. 10, so has the offensive line.
The Wolfpack enters this game ranked No. 8 in total defense, allowing 279.8 yards per game. Quarterback Ryan Finley is among the national leaders in completion percentage (69.5) and is one of two quarterbacks in the country without an interception and more than 125 passing attempts.
Senior running back Matt Dayes ranks in the top 20 in rushing yards per game (112.6) and the offensive line has given up five sacks (in five games), which ranks among the top 20.
So there are reasons to believe that N.C. State – even with Clemson, Louisville and FSU coming up in the next four weeks – can be the best team Doeren has had.
The criticism of Doeren, who has a 22-21 record at N.C. State, is his teams have won the games they were supposed to but can’t step up in weight class.
Under former coach Tom O’Brien, N.C. State would regularly pull off a big win but usually follow it up with a head-scratcher. The 2012 team beat FSU, which finished the season 12-2 and No. 10 in the country, at Carter-Finley Stadium but lost to Virginia, a 4-8 team, at home.
Last week’s 10-3 home win over Notre Dame is arguably the most notable on Doeren’s resume thus far. Notre Dame, a preseason top 10 team, takes a 2-4 record into Saturday’s home game with Stanford.
Doeren can’t be knocked for the quality of Notre Dame, certainly not after a win in those weather conditions, but there is a significant number of fans eager to see the Wolfpack occasionally knock off Clemson or FSU.
Excited to play top teams
Part of N.C. State’s problem, and difficulty in measuring progress, is the power teams in its division don’t seem to be coming back to the pack.
Clemson has the inside track for a second straight division title and third in six years. Maybe Florida State (4-2) has taken a step back, after splitting games with North Carolina and Miami, but Louisville has jumped into the top 10 with superb quarterback Lamar Jackson.
N.C. State was competitive with Clemson, FSU and Louisville last year but ended up losing to all three teams. These are the games, Dayes said, that the Wolfpack players look forward to.
“They’re the No. 3 team in the country, I think we’re always excited to play the top teams in the country,” Dayes said. “I think it brings out the best in me and I think it brings out the best in my teammates, as well. We’re looking forward to the opportunity.”
N.C. State stayed with Clemson for three quarters last year before falling 56-41. It was the same story and same score at home against FSU the year before.
Any progress N.C. State makes under Doeren will be measured against the best teams in the division. The big-picture goals can only be accomplished one way, Doeren said.
“I think our players will tell you that the biggest thing they’re trying to do is to be better than they were a week ago,” Doeren said. “And they know if they are, we’ll have a chance to win this football game.”
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio
N.C. State at No. 3 Clemson
When: Noon Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium, Clemson, S.C.