You can call Cole Cubelic crazy.
The SEC Network analyst has been called worse since projecting N.C. State to make the College Football Playoff this season.
Cubelic, a 39-year-old former offensive lineman for Auburn, understands the apprehension. The Wolfpack went 7-6 a year ago and is not even ranked, in AP or USA Today top 25, heading into the season.
That doesn’t matter to Cubelic. He has his own reasons for liking the Wolfpack.
“It’s kind of amazing to me that so many people think it’s inconceivable,” Cubelic said in a recent interview with The News & Observer.
“They have one of the best defensive lines in the country. I really like their offensive line – Dwayne Ledford is one of the most underrated coaches in the country if you look at what he did at Appalachian State, too – and they have a veteran quarterback.”
Cubelic, who also has stalwarts Alabama and Ohio State in the CFP, is just getting started in building his case for the Wolfpack.
“Samuels, Hill, Chubb, Street, Hines – they’ve got NFL dudes,” Cubelic said.
That’s senior Jaylen Samuels, who has caught 120 passes and scored 29 touchdowns the past two years, and junior running back Nyheim Hines, who is being tasked with replacing Matt Dayes (1,166 rushing yards) on the offensive side. And defensive tackle B.J. Hill, defensive end Kentavius Street and defensive end Bradley Chubb, all seniors, on the defensive side.
N.C. State does have talent but what about the established of the Atlantic Division powers – Florida State, preseason No. 3; Clemson, preseason No. 5 and last year’s national champion; and Louisville, preseason No. 16 and returning last year’s Heisman Trophy winner (quarterback Lamar Jackson)?
N.C. State has a 0-11 record against those three teams under coach Dave Doeren.
The Wolfpack’s schedule is difficult, Cubelic will relent, but it could lose one conference game and still win the ACC, he said.
“You have to really look at the ACC,” he said. “Four of the top five defensive lines in the country are in the ACC. Who has the offensive line to be able to handle these teams?
“Florida State’s offensive line has big problems and that plays right into the hands of N.C. State. Louisville’s offensive line was pathetic last year.
“Clemson has a good line but you look at Clemson last year and it wasn’t like they just dominated the ACC from start to finish. Pitt beat them and N.C. State had them. You take into account all of their personnel losses and I don’t think they’ll be the same team they were last year.”
Yeah, but what about N.C. State’s history? The Wolfpack hasn’t won an ACC title in almost 40 years and barely, if ever, been a serious contender for the national title. There’s only one season in school history, an 11-3 mark in 2002, where the Wolfpack hit double digits in wins.
This is not a point Cubelic is willing to debate.
“I don’t care what happened in 2015, 2009, 1989 or 1949,” Cubelic said. “Those teams aren’t playing.”
Fair enough but as Cubelic has already heard from many N.C. State fans, there is the matter of the “Law of the Wolfpack.”
N.C. State, at least for the better part of 40 years, hasn’t handled preseason expectations well. When you expect more from N.C. State – in football or basketball – you usually get less.
The last four times N.C. State has started the season ranked in the AP poll (going back to 1975), it has finished the year unranked.
Cubelic has been amazed at how many Wolfpack fans have asked him to take his prediction back.
“I guess I get it,” Cubelic said. “They’re fans and not always rational about their team. But if someone thinks my team is going to be good, that means we’re going to be bad? That’s kind of crazy.”
The part Cubelic wishes more fans understood is he has studied N.C. State film and he worked the Wolfpack’s 41-17 Independence Bowl win over Vanderbilt last year for the SEC Network.
“I’m not just spitballing and blindly throwing darts all around the room,” Cubelic said. “I watched every snap from last year.”
One big reason Cubelic likes N.C. State’s chances this year: experience. N.C. State has 16 starters back from last season, including all four on the defensive line and four of the five starters on the offensive line. Given his background on the offensive line, Cubelic is big on the value of line play.
The concept of going through a tough season, with N.C. State losing heart-breaking games to Clemson (24-17 in overtime) and at home to Florida (24-20), can be turned into motivation the next year, Cubelic said.
In 1999, Auburn went 5-6. With many of the same players back, the Tigers started 2000 with a 9-2 mark and won the SEC West (before losing their final two games).
“This is going to sound corny but it’s reality,” Cubelic said. “I’m still a proponent of the team. They’ve got lot a dudes who have played a lot of football together. When you go through losses like that, it makes you understand how much more you want it.”
For a crazy man, Cubelic makes a lot of sense but only if N.C. State can hold up its end of the bargain.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio
Saturday vs. South Carolina (at Charlotte) 3 p.m.
Sept. 9 Marshall 6 p.m.
Sept. 16 Furman 12:20 p.m.
Sept. 23 at Florida State
Sept. 30 Syracuse
Oct. 5 Louisville 8 p.m.
Oct. 14 at Pittsburgh
Oct. 28 at Notre Dame
Nov. 4 Clemson
Nov. 11 at Boston College
Nov. 18 at Wake Forest
Nov. 25 UNC
QB 15 Ryan Finley (6-4, 210, Jr.)
RB 7 Nyheim Hines (5-9, 197, Jr.)
TE 48 Cole Cook (6-6, 250, Sr.)
WR 1 Jaylen Samuels (5-11, 228, Sr.)
WR 12 Stephen Louis (6-2, 217, Jr.)
WR 3 Kelvin Harmon (6-3, 213, So.)
LT 53 Tyler Jones (6-3, 300, Jr.)
LG 70 Terronne Prescod (6-5, 331, Jr.)
C 65 Garrett Bradbury (6-3, 300, Jr.)
RG 50 Tony Adams (6-2, 315, Sr.)
RT 54 Will Richardson (6-6, 322, Jr.)
K 38 Carson Wise (5-10, 170, Jr.)
DE 35 Kentavius Street (6-2, 287, Sr.)
DT 98 B.J. Hill (6-4, 315, Sr.)
DT 27 Justin Jones (6-2, 312, Sr.)
DE 9 Bradley Chubb (6-4, 275, Sr.)
MLB 4 Jerod Fernandez (6-0, 227, Sr.)
WLB 58 Airius Moore (6-0, 235, Sr.)
S 24 Shawn Boone (5-10, 206, Sr.)
FS 14 Dexter Wright (6-2, 232, Jr.)
SS 31 Jarius Morehead (6-1, 217, So.)
CB 5 Johnathan Alston (6-0, 210, Sr.)
CB 21 Nick McCloud (6-0, 189, So.)
P 90 A.J. Cole (6-4, 230, Jr.)
Passing: Ryan Finley (243-402, 3,059 yards)
Rushing: Matt Dayes (249-1,166 yards)
Receiving: Jaylen Samuels (55-565 yards)
Best-case scenario: Both lines pick up where they left off last year, Ryan Finley takes two steps forward, Jaylen Samuels’ talents are maximized and Carson Wise makes the kicks that count. That would add up to a 6-2 ACC mark (with losses to Florida State and Louisville) and for only the second time in school history N.C. State’s win total reaches double digits.
Worst-case scenario: The new parts in the secondary don’t come together, the same old problems continue in the kicking game and a replacement can’t be found at running back for Matt Dayes. A loss in the opener to South Carolina leads N.C. State on a spiral to a 4-8 season and Debbie Yow to a coaching search in December.
Bottom line: This is the season Doeren has been building towards for five years. N.C. State has the right combination of talent and experience to break through for nine wins during the regular season and head into the bowl for a shot at No. 10.