Building a Top 25 football program is the hardest of any sport. Step one is recruiting. Yet institutional advantages and perceptions of traditional powers make breaking through difficult. When the blue bloods land elite talent, they hoard it. Players are required to remain in school for at least 3 years...they can’t go to the league after 1 year like basketball or opt to skip college altogether like baseball. Along with recruiting, staff continuity, top-notch facilities, and a loyal, contributing fan-base are also aspects of creating a consistent Top 25 program. Of course, the last step is winning games...which is as on the nose as it is intended. Not counting year zero of his tenure, CDD has won 63% of his games at State and 50% of his games in conference. We have been doing the winning part. The problem is it isn’t just winning that gets you ranked in the Top 25 of the AP Poll or even the College Football Playoff it’s also timing. These polls are fickle and week to week results lead to massive shifts in who makes the list. It’s also important to note that while the CFP Poll is the most tangibly relevant, the AP Poll has a longer history. For NC State to be regularly considered a Top 25 program, it’s not just the winning they have to keep doing...they must also fix a timing issue.
In 2017, State defeated Syracuse at home and entered the rankings at #24 (AP Poll). After defeating Pitt, State rose as high as #14 before suffering back to back losses at #9 ND and to #6 Clemson, dropping out altogether. Sliding back in at #25 after surviving BC, State promptly loses at Wake and exits the rankings. Even after closing out with a rivalry win over UNC-CH, it took a Sun Bowl victory over ASU to get State back in the AP Poll.
In 2018, State defeated UVA at home and entered the rankings at #23 (AP Poll). After defeating BC, State rose as high as #16 before suffering back to back losses at #2 Clemson and at Syracuse, dropping out altogether. Sliding back in at #22 after crushing FSU, State promptly loses to Wake and exits the rankings. Even after closing out with a rivalry win over Extreme Carolina, it will take a Gator Bowl victory over Texas A&M to get State back in the AP Poll.
Yeah. We’ve seen the CFP committee give State a lot of respect but the AP voters are less confident. They seem to recognize that NC State can be a Top 25 team but do not trust us to remain that way. Unfairly, AP voters shuffle teams down or up based on a recency bias while giving leeway to national programs and discounting the full body of work of teams in that particular year. Still...it matters. The AP Top 25 ranks teams post-bowl season (unlike CFP) and is most widely used by major sports media outlets (unlike the USA Today sponsored Coaches Poll). The exposure is invaluable. When offseason discussions are had about the trajectory of teams in the next year the stories are always about the “biggest question” or “best returning player” from Top 25 teams. Coaches who want to tout their own successes as a Top 25 team or thier big victories over a Top 25 squad on the recruiting trail are going to likely reference the AP Poll.
It’s clear, the last two years show that NC State has had awful timing in its attempts to be consistent in the AP Poll. There’re a few things at play here. One, to be obvious, State can’t lose games where they are highly favored to teams like Wake Forest. Now although Wake is a program that has made bowls in consecutive years after beating State, it’s clear the voters view that program as lower tier, making our losses seem more egregious. There are still other parts we can’t help like unfortunate scheduling. Imagine facing ND, then Pitt in 2017 or getting Louisville at home after Clemson in 2018, we’d likely have the same amount of wins and losses but would’ve remained ranked all year. Instead, the schedule worked out where we faced two eventual Top 20 teams back to back each time getting blown out in one game while falling just short in the other.
Could these dips be due to mental weariness? These swoons seem to come around mid-to-late season. We’ve seen Finley drop in production late in seasons and watched All-ACC performers make uncharacteristic mistakes at important moments during these times.
Is it bad injury luck? Not having Hines at 100% (or at all) against ND/Clemson in 2017 played a huge role in those games. The same goes with Person & McCloud at Syracuse (or Person vs Wake) this year.
Maybe it is due to teams having more data on our gameplan? While we add some wrinkles in on offense a few times, our zone-blocking scheme is predictable and predicated on just having better technique when at times that’s not enough. Our weaknesses in coverage weren’t truly exploited until late in the BC game, which played right into Clemson’s and ‘Cuse’s game plans while informing Wake on what to do in the second half. Or maybe...just maybe... it’s simply tough to win 8+ games games in a 12 game schedule no matter how bad your opponents are...
Whatever the problem is of State becoming a regular Top 25 program we see they have been showing growth in recruiting/development, managing the staff well, improving the facilities and engaging the fanbase. The past couple of years we also are seeing increased wins, but the arbitrary nature of ranking teams in the Top 25 means it’s not just IF those victories come...it’s when.