So how did N.C. State, in what was supposed to be a breakthrough season, end up in El Paso instead of Florida?
Some of it is the Wolfpack’s fault, starting with the losses to South Carolina and Wake Forest. An 8-4 record, even at 6-2 in the ACC, wasn’t enough to get the Wolfpack to one of the ACC’s marquee Florida bowls, the Camping World (Orlando) and Gator (Jacksonvillle). N.C. State’s overall resume in Dave Doeren’s fifth season with a senior-laden team was good enough to get Doeren a raise and contract extension (thanks to Tennessee’s intervention) but not good enough to entice bowl representatives who preferred Virginia Tech’s reputation and record or the star power of Louisville’s Heisman Trophy winner, Lamar Jackson
And if the Wolfpack hadn’t opened the season in Charlotte, maybe it would be there instead – but even that wouldn’t feel like much of a reward for this season, considering N.C. State was there two years ago after winning three ACC games. The last time N.C. State played in Orlando was 2010, when the Wolfpack went … 8-4.
Florida is what N.C. State fans wanted, but they’ll get Texas instead. There’s a lot to like about the Sun Bowl, from the atmosphere to the national-television slot on CBS to the Pac-12 opponent (Arizona State), but none of that makes it any easier to get there from here.
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At the same time, the Wolfpack was caught up in circumstances beyond its control. Notre Dame got an impossibly sweet deal in agreeing to its half-pregnant membership in the league – we’ll stay independent in football, play a few of your teams, keep our juicy NBC deal, take one of your bowl slots when we need it and give our other sports an enviable landing spot in the ACC – and it ended up costing the ACC’s actual, permanent, full members this time around.
When Ohio State failed to make the College Football Playoff’s final four, that dropped Wisconsin to the Orange Bowl against Miami, and when there’s a Big Ten opponent in the Orange Bowl, the ACC gets an extra spot in the Citrus Bowl. But the Citrus Bowl passed over all the actual ACC teams to take Notre Dame, which as things are set up was entirely within its rights.
The combination of the trickle-down effect on the ACC’s other bowls and N.C. State’s failure to win another game or two left the Wolfpack on the outside looking in when it came to Orlando and Jacksonville. Having Notre Dame in the pool may help the ACC in bowl negotiations, but it certainly seems to benefit Notre Dame more than it does actual ACC teams when it comes to bowl destinations.
As for the CFP committee, it had an impossible choice between Alabama and Ohio State, but it probably made the right one, for reasons that may not be immediately obvious.
First of all, in a year when there were only three teams that clearly deserved to get in and no obvious fourth, the committee should have gone off the board and taken undefeated Central Florida as the fourth. That was never going to happen, because the Power 5 schools control the process, but it would have been a nice change from the usual.
But in the choice between Alabama and Ohio State, there were a few factors pushing the committee toward Ohio State: It won a conference championship, there was already an SEC team in the field and Ohio State’s athletic director is on the CFP committee. Other than the conference title, none of the latter should matter, and the title only a little, but this is a human committee and people are inevitably influenced by these things.
Instead, the committee was able to overcome those inherent biases and choose Alabama, a team that most sets of power ratings and objective measures saw as “better” than Ohio State. Either choice would have been fine, really, but the committee made the one you wouldn’t necessarily expect it to make, which is always heartening when it comes to big-time college sports.
That ended up bumping Wisconsin to the Orange Bowl and opening up the Citrus Bowl for the ACC – which promptly saw that spot gobbled up by a school that refuses to fully join the conference. N.C. State can’t complain too much about that this year, since Notre Dame at least has a head-to-head win over the Wolfpack, but it certainly doesn’t seem like the ACC is getting the better end of that deal.
So El Paso it is. N.C. State’s season won’t end where fans hoped or wanted it to end, but it wasn’t quite the season they hoped or wanted it to be, either. Sometimes, that’s just how these things work out.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock