N.C. State spent much of the football season answering questions about the strength of its schedule.
Starting with the matchup with Mississippi State (8-4) in the Belk Bowl on Dec. 30 in Charlotte, the Wolfpack won’t have to worry about those questions any more.
N.C. State (7-5) played the second-weakest schedule of any “Power 5” conference team this season, according to the Sagarin computer ratings.
But, starting with the bowl game, the Wolfpack is about to begin one of the most challenging schedules for any team, anywhere.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
“It’s very difficult,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said.
But Doeren sees the upcoming games, Mississippi State is the first Power 5 team he’ll face outside the ACC in his three-year tenure, as a great challenge.
“Our players are excited about it,” Doeren said. “In recruiting, it has been great having those conversations about who we are going to play against.”
Outside of the ACC next year, N.C. State hosts Notre Dame and goes to East Carolina. Miami, with new coach Mark Richt, is the rotating Coastal Division crossover game.
Then there’s a trip to Clemson and a home game with Florida State on the Atlantic Division side and the annual game with North Carolina.
There’s a chance Clemson and Notre Dame could open the 2016 season ranked No. 1 and 2 in the country. FSU and UNC both have a chance to start the season in the top 10. All four finished in the top 10 of the College Football Playoff rankings this season.
Miami, with veteran quarterback Brad Kaaya and a significant upgrade on the sidelines, will probably be a preseason top 25 team next year.
“It should be a pretty fun season,” sophomore running back Jaylen Samuels said.
Schedules on paper don’t always pan out the same way once the games start but the next 13 games almost certainly will be more of a challenge than this year’s slate.
N.C. State’s overall strength of schedule ranked No. 66 in the Sagarin ratings, which compares all 253 Division I teams – both the Bowl and Championship subdivisions.
The Big Ten’s Wisconsin, No. 69, was the only other Power 5 conference team with a lower-rated schedule.
N.C. State’s schedule was ranked right behind Duke’s (No. 64) and UNC’s (No. 63).
The Wolfpack’s four opponents outside the ACC this season ranked No. 115 (Troy), No. 135 (South Alabama), No. 141 (Eastern Kentucky) and No. 163 (Old Dominion) in the Sagarin ratings.
Mississippi State, which ranks No. 25 in the Sagarin ratings, went 4-4 in the SEC and won its four nonconference games.
Clemson (No. 3), FSU (No. 6) and UNC (No. 11) are the only teams ranked ahead of the Bulldogs in the Sagarin ratings that N.C. State has faced – and lost all three games – this season.
“You look at our schedule, we still played some of the best teams in the country,” senior quarterback Jacoby Brissett said. “One of the teams (Clemson) is in the playoff right now.”
But after being criticized for its schedule, N.C. State welcomes the chance to prove its worth against an SEC team in the bowl game.
“At the end of the day, the SEC is the SEC,” senior defensive end Mike Rose said. “They’re considered the premier conference, so a win against one of their better teams would be good for us.”
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio