With 10 games played, and bowl eligibility secured, it’s still too soon to tell which way N.C. State’s season is headed.
That’s a crazy statement to make with so much football already in the books, but the Wolfpack’s season really will come down to how it fares in its final two games, Saturday against Syracuse and next weekend against North Carolina.
A loss to struggling Syracuse at Carter-Finley Stadium would be a tremendous kick in the teeth while removing any chance of improving on last season’s seven regular-season wins.
A win in N.C. State’s biggest rivalry, the Wolfpack’s second straight over the Tar Heels, would be the most memorable moment of the entire season, especially with what figure to be extraordinarily high stakes for North Carolina.
For any team, the difference between 8-4 and 6-6 is huge, but even more so for N.C. State as Dave Doeren attempts to demonstrate tangible progress in Year Three.
“To say that we’ve raised the bar this year, how do you say that?” Doeren said. “I think the only way to define it by numbers would be to win the next two, right? Because last year we won seven in the regular season and we have a chance to win eight. That would be your ultimate goal here, to finish 2-0, go to a postseason game and win it.”
Even though N.C. State knows it is going to a bowl and is not winning the Atlantic Division, there’s still a surprising amount to play for in these final games.
It could all still go either way, thanks to the Wolfpack’s very mixed results so far.
On the positive side, N.C. State took care of business during the easy part of its schedule and added ACC wins over Wake Forest and Boston College to advance to a bowl game for the second year in a row and sixth time in the past eight years.
On the negative side, the Wolfpack battled gamely but fell short on both of its chances so far for a big-time win – Clemson and Florida State, with one left against the Tar Heels – while losing in less gratifying circumstances to Louisville (at home) and Virginia Tech (on the road), both winnable games.
While N.C. State isn’t going to win nine games in the regular season or 10 including a bowl, which seemed possible before the season, those two sides of the scale are more or less in balance at this point, awaiting the two final pieces of evidence that will deliver a verdict on N.C. State’s season.
Not coincidentally, the Wolfpack’s postseason fate remains very much in doubt as well. If N.C. State can beat both Syracuse and North Carolina, it makes its preferred bowl option at this point – Charlotte’s Belk Bowl – a realistic possibility. Lose out, and its bowl options become considerably less exciting.
“We’re very glad that we did manage to get six wins and get to that threshold,” offensive lineman Joe Thuney said. “Now you can only improve the bowl. Of course, that’s in all of our heads, that each game can determine a better bowl that we go to, so we’re very aware of that fact and playing hard for that.”
So even though N.C. State knows it is going to a bowl and is not winning the Atlantic Division, there’s still a surprising amount to play for in these final games, which makes the potential trap of looking past Syracuse to North Carolina all the more dangerous for the Wolfpack.
It probably isn’t fair to judge the entire season on two weeks’ worth of evidence, but for N.C. State, that conclusion is unavoidable at this point.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock