NC State’s clearest path to a major New Year’s bowl game, explained

Will NC State pay back last year’s bitter loss to Wake Forest?

The News & Observer's Joe Giglio answers whether he thinks NC State will pay back last year's bitter loss to Wake Forest in the Wolfpack's Thursday night matchup with the Demon Deacons
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The News & Observer's Joe Giglio answers whether he thinks NC State will pay back last year's bitter loss to Wake Forest in the Wolfpack's Thursday night matchup with the Demon Deacons

N.C. State moved up to No. 14 in the College Football Rankings on Tuesday and has a chance to make a major bowl game for the first time in school history (and first time for any Triangle team since the 1960 season).

N.C. State coach Dave Doeren watched the selection show and was not necessarily impressed.

“You’ve got four games left, we handle our business, then it will be a relevant thing,” Doeren said. “It’s not relevant until we do that. You’re one poor game away from being back down.”

Here’s the explanation on how the CFP process works. In short, N.C. State has access to the Fiesta (Jan. 1, Glendale, Ariz.) or Peach (Dec. 29, Atlanta) bowl but not the Rose or Sugar.

So there are four at-large spots: one is guaranteed to go to the highest-rated champion from a “Group of 5” conference. This week, that is No. 12 Central Florida (8-0) from the American Athletic.

The other three spots go strictly by the CFP rankings. There is no wiggle room in the process.

To give you an idea of how the “New Year’s Six” games would be set up, here’s an example based on this week’s rankings:

So N.C. State made a big jump but is still behind four teams (No. 6 Oklahoma, No. 7 LSU, No. 9 West Virginia, No. 11 Kentucky) for one of the at-large spots. Here is the clearest, and most realistic path, for the Wolfpack to make a “New Year’s Six” bowl game:

1. Win out

Obviously, N.C. State (6-2) has to win its final four games. The last four games are against: Wake Forest (4-5), at Louisville (2-7), at UNC (1-7) and East Carolina (2-6).

N.C. State will be favored to win all four games — it is a 17-point favorite against Wake Forest on Thursday — and probably should win out. Avoiding a stumble and winning games it “should” has been an issue for this program.

2. No chaos

Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Michigan are the top four teams and would be in the playoff, if the season ended today.

Of course, the season doesn’t end today and there’s still four weeks left. No. 1 Alabama (9-0) and No. 2 Clemson (9-0) have been obliterating their opponents and appear to be on a collision course for the championship game (for the third time in four years).

N.C. State needs those two heavyweights to run the table. Alabama stumbled late last year to Auburn and opened the door for a second SEC team (Georgia) in the playoff.

This year, Georgia (8-1) could knock off the Crimson Tide in the SEC title game and then both would likely be back in the final four. That would push a Big Ten team down into the at-large pool, which would not be good for N.C. State.

No. 3 Notre Dame (9-0) winning out would be in N.C. State’s best interests, too. It doesn’t matter if No. 4 Michigan (8-1) or No. 10 Ohio State (8-1) wins the Big Ten. The loser is guaranteed a spot in the Rose Bowl.

But if the Big Ten champ doesn’t make the playoff, it would drop to the Rose and the next team — depending on the ranking — would be in the at-large pool. Let’s be honest, there isn’t a planet where 10-2 N.C. State finishes ranked ahead of 10-2 Ohio State, the annual darling of the CFP committee.

In short, N.C. State can’t afford to have an extra team drop into the at-large pool.

3. One Syracuse loss

This is the most likely to happen (depending on your view of State winning out).

The No. 13 Orange (7-2), who beat the Wolfpack on Oct. 27, are one spot ahead of N.C. State. They also have a much more difficult remaining schedule with Louisville, Notre Dame (at Yankee Stadium) and at Boston College.

If Syracuse wins out, it will finish ahead of N.C. State. End of story.

4. A Kentucky or LSU loss

This is a binary equation. If either No. 7 LSU (7-2) or No. 11 Kentucky (7-2) lose, it will likely fall behind a 2-loss N.C. State team in the final CFP ranking.

If the Wildcats and Tigers win out, they will likely stay ahead of N.C. State and get a spot in either the Peach or Fiesta.

The Wildcats have a relatively easy schedule — Tennessee (4-5), Middle Tennessee (6-3) and at Louisville (2-7) — but they could lose on Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn.

LSU, coming off of a crushing loss to Alabama, has to recover to win at Arkansas (2-7), Rice (1-9) and at Texas A&M (5-4).

Jimbo Fisher just might turn out to be the new favorite coach of N.C. State’s fans.

5. A Big 12 sweep

As simple as the SEC equation is —whoo, boy, the Big 12 side is complicated. Brief history lesson: In 2014, the first year of the playoff, the Big 12 had two teams (Baylor and TCU) finish with an 11-1 record.

Instead of parsing the difference between those two teams — and complicated by the Big 12’s crowning of co-champions (even though Baylor beat TCU) — the committee decided to leave both out and put Ohio State in (the Buckeyes went on to win the national title).

In reaction to that, the Big 12 — which actually only has 10 teams — decided to stage a conference championship game. It’s important to note here the Big 12 plays a round-robin and doesn’t need a conference championship game but they overreacted to being left out.

Fast forward to 2018. Oklahoma (8-1) and West Virginia (7-1) will play on Nov. 23 in Morgantown, W.Va.

If both teams get to that point with only one loss — they each have very manageable schedules — there’s a good chance they will play again the very next week in the Big 12 championship game. (Talk about the “Law of Unintended Consequences.”)

It doesn’t matter to N.C. State which team wins the Big 12 title, just that either Oklahoma or West Virginia win both games.If they split, the league champion is guaranteed a spot in the Sugar Bowl and the second team would likely remain ahead of N.C. State in the CFP rankings.

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