When you define the growth process of a football program by its foundational pieces, it’s a relatively linear process. A new regime gradually upgrades its talent level, builds depth, and turns over old rosters into ones more appropriately suited. It usually follows a linear trajectory as it’s built piece by piece, player by player. How steep and in which direction this line goes depends on the coach, but things have to build gradually from the ground up.
College football teams are not defined this way though. They should be, but they never have been. They’re defined by a handful of individual points on that line. They’re defined by moments that tear through the fabric of mediocrity or fail to in the face of great opportunity. It’s not a fair way to judge the state of things, but it’s those moments that determine what you’re ultimately worth.
Dave Doeren has slowly and meticulously constructed a contender at NC State. With each passing year his teams have become more talented. They’ve become deeper and they’ve become better, even if the record didn’t always reflect it. Now they are a top-25 program. NC State is undefeated and has won 16 of its last 20 games. Things are coming together.
Nobody cares though. Nobody cares because NC State still hasn’t given anyone a reason to. Should they care? Well, yes, because NC State is good. But at each key point on its line, it’s failed. With four separate opportunities in 2017 for a big win on a national stage, State only grabbed one of them, and it didn’t hold up for anything.
This hasn’t stunted the development of the program, but it’s the reason why the 5-0 Wolfpack were ranked 20th. It’s the reason why a conference title level team was stuffed away in El Paso, Texas for the Sun Bowl. It’s the reason why College GameDay is in something called Pullman, Washington. NC State hasn’t seized its moments in the past. If you think there’s a perception issue nationally with this team, well this is where it starts.
This program has been oh so close to that national relevance we all seek, where you get primetime games, national exposure like GameDay, and all the advantages that come with that. But right at the edge, it’s faltered. If State wants the big showcase, it needs to win something. Announce itself against someone who matters. And oh, would you look at what’s on the docket for Saturday.
The Clemson game has been a microcosm of the season both of the last two years. Pure unfiltered heartbreak in 2016 and so close but not quite in 2017. The seasons were more or less defined by that game each of the last two campaigns and this year sets up to be the same way. A win gives the Pack it’s coveted big win over a ranked opponent and paves them a nice clean straight road to the ACC Championship Game. A loss realistically eliminates them.
This year it also happens to be NC State’s only chance for a statement win, at least during the regular season. So, you could say this game means a lot. A win could be a long-awaited end point for the frustrating national perception that we’ve had to deal with for so long. There will be more opportunities like this, but it’s not often that the waves part for you like they have for NC State this year.
State can turn this win into quantifiable relevance with an ACC Championship and should they pull the upset, it’d be hard to not expect them to. Should they lose, an 11-1 season would likely be brushed off the same way that massively overrated 2015 UNC team was. This is this year’s moment. Can they seize it?