Despite an unbeaten start to the 2015 season, N.C. State has its share of skeptics. Louisville coach Bobby Petrino is not among them.
“I think they’re for real for sure,” Petrino said.
After dominating a manageable nonconference schedule, N.C. State (4-0) will find out where it stands, with the start of ACC play Saturday at home against Petrino and Louisville (1-3).
The Cardinals come into the Atlantic Division game from the opposite path of N.C. State, losing three of their first four games against a difficult schedule, including a 20-17 home loss to No. 12 Clemson on Sept. 17.
The Wolfpack’s strength of schedule has led to some doubts. The four main reasons: Troy, Eastern Kentucky, Old Dominion and South Alabama.
According to the Sagarin computer ratings, N.C. State’s strength of schedule ranks 169th out of 253 Division I teams and the easiest among the 65 “Power 5” conference teams.
“It is what it is,” N.C. State senior cornerback Juston Burris said. “People are going to say what they have to say (about our schedule). We did what we had to do. A win is a win and we’ve got four of them, and that’s all we’re looking at.”
N.C. State has already sacked two Sun Belt teams, but how will it fare against the ACC?
Petrino says the combination of talent, experience and confidence is there for the Wolfpack, regardless of who was on the losing end during the first four games.
“They’re a very good football team,” Petrino said. “They’re very well coached and they’re playing with a lot of confidence.”
Petrino is not the first opposing coach to praise N.C. State this season. Troy coach Neal Brown called the Wolfpack “a top 25 team” after his team lost 49-21 in Raleigh on Sept. 5. He compared N.C. State’s recent roll to that of No. 1 Ohio State.
Going back to the end of the 2014 season, the Wolfpack has won its past seven games – the longest streak among ACC teams. Since a 30-18 loss at Louisville on Oct. 18, N.C. State has won eight of its past nine games, with only a home loss to Georgia Tech. Among ACC teams, Clemson (8-1) has the same record as the Wolfpack and only Florida State (9-1) has a better record during that span.
South Alabama coach Joey Jones, whose team also faced N.C. State in 2011 and ’12, is among the believers. His team lost 63-13 last week to the Wolfpack, the largest margin of victory on the road for any N.C. State team since 1903.
“In my opinion, they’re a top 25 team,” Jones said. “They are much more athletic, across the board, than they were in the previous two times we played them. We could never slow them down.”
N.C. State ran for 330 yards against South Alabama, its fourth 300-yard rushing game since the beginning of the 2014 season. The Wolfpack didn’t have any 300-yard games between 1995 and 2013.
The combination of the running game and the decision making of quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who hasn’t turned the ball over this season, is what makes N.C. State special, Jones said.
Jones was particularly impressed with the athleticism of N.C. State’s offensive line.
‘We weren’t big enough to stand up to them,” Jones said. “I think some teams will be. It will be interesting to see how they do.”
Jones isn’t the only one curious to see if N.C. State’s hot start will translate in ACC play. Last year, the Wolfpack went 4-0 outside the ACC and then lost its first four conference games: 56-41 to Florida State, 41-0 at Clemson, 30-14 to Boston College and 30-18 at Louisville.
N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said his team was better outside the ACC this season than it was a year ago, winning all four games in convincing margin. The Wolfpack struggled to beat Georgia Southern and Old Dominion last season in Raleigh, but it has won each of its four games this season by at least 24 points, averaging 34.2 points per game, including road wins against ODU and South Alabama.
Doeren pointed specifically to the statistical improvement on defense as proof of the Wolfpack’s progress.
Last season, N.C. State gave up 373.1 yards per game, including 438 to Georgia Southern and 504 to ODU. This season, the Wolfpack has allowed an average of 205.8 yards per game, third-best in the country, and 4.22 yards per play (compared to 5.24 last year).
Others have made more about N.C. State’s schedule, Doeren said, than those inside the program.
“We’re excited to be 4-0,” Doeren said. “We feel like we’ve gotten better as a team.”
Senior defensive end Mike Rose knows the only one way to convert N.C. State’s skeptics is to keep winning and to beat ACC teams.
“It’s our job to change people’s perception,” Rose said.
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio
Since you’ve been gone
N.C. State fell to 4-4, and 0-12 in ACC play under coach Dave Doeren, after a 30-18 loss at Louisville on Oct. 18, 2014. Since then, the Wolfpack has won eight of nine games, including its last seven – the longest current winning streak among ACC teams. How all 14 ACC teams have fared since the last time N.C. State and Louisville met: