On August 31, 2019 NC State defeated in-state opponent ECU by a score of 34 to 6. On September 7, 2019 NC State shutout in-state opponent WCU 41 to 0. And outside the state of North Carolina, nobody cared. Elsewhere, UNC-CH got outdumbed by USC-E and outplayed by The U but found a way to win those games close through a series of fortuitous events. This week the College Football AP Poll has a very lucky UNC-CH receiving votes and a very dominant NC State not. Sports reporters will write about UNC-CH’s wins in Mack’s first season back, sports radio hosts will field calls related to their success and podcasts will include them in recaps of this past weekend as well as games to look forward to for next weekend. For a couple of weeks they are relevant again in the national media and frankly, that is completely fair. Not because their program deserves it nor because they will suddenly care about football at that school, but because their scheduling put them in a position to make the kind of noise we’ve failed to over the years. In the perpetual battle for national perception to boost recruiting and boost exposure in a top heavy sport, it’s time for NC State to start scheduling smarter.
To be clear, I am not only talking about opponent quality as a whole. This isn’t like basketball where there’s an NCAA selection committee that will punish you for scheduling a low-tier FCS team or a struggling Group of 5 program. In practice having two of those types of teams are great for locking up two wins in a hunt for bowl berths, providing reps for your starters and getting valuable live-game experience for young players especially under the new redshirt rule. The problem is not just about the “who” but I believe it’s even more about the “when.”
For two weeks out of the year college football is the center of the sports world. Week one at the start of the season and week two before the NFL really begins. During the past five years, good (even great) NC State teams haven’t taken advantage of this opportunity to put themselves on the national radar when all eyes are on the product, all the while Chapel Hill most definitely has.
2015-2019 Weeks 1 & 2 Schedules
|Year||NC State||UNC-Chapel Hill|
|Year||NC State||UNC-Chapel Hill|
|2015||vs. Troy, vs. EKU||vs. USC-E (Charlotte), vs. NC A&T|
|2016||vs. Bill & Mary, at ECU||vs. UGA (Atlanta), at Illinois|
|2017||vs. USC-E (Charlotte), vs Marshall||vs. Cal, vs. Louisville|
|2018||vs. JMU, vs. Georgia State||at Cal, at ECU|
|2019||vs. ECU, vs. WCU||vs. USC-E (Charlotte), vs. The U|
Outside of one game against USC-E we haven’t purposefully scheduled two P5 opponents in a year. But more so than that, we’ve continually frontloaded our schedule to play our weak non-conference games early. We haven’t even had one of our first two games against an ACC foe since playing at Wake in 2011. Contrast this to Chapel Hill who has had a P5 opponent in these first set of games every year and the majority of those seasons with back-to-back P5 contests. In four out of five years, Chapel Hill lost at least one of their first two games, while State has won both games in three out of those five years. Yet no one outside of Raleigh was covering wins over Troy, EKU, or WCU. For UNC-CH they grabbed national attention for even just playing games against UGA and Cal. And imagine if they had actually pulled out a couple more victories during that time frame...their national perception would be more inflated than it’s ever been.
I am of the opinion that for a program like ours, which has to force its way into the headlines regularly, scheduling is one fixable area that can help make that struggle a little less daunting. All that to say there is good news ahead in the next few years. Next year the calendar looks like we will begin with an ACC game before facing Mississippi State at home (might need a fact check). 2021 has us against USF followed by a trip to Starkville. After that...it’s more of the same. While it is encouraging that we have some of our non-conference games coming mid to late season each year, our schedules until 2025 are discouragingly front-loaded with tomato cans and teams that will garner no attention outside of their own state. 2026 may be near when it seems so far, so now is the time to get creative. Years where we don’t play them in a cross-division match-up, schedule a non-conference game with Duke or an original ACC team like UVA to start the season (bet the ACCN would love to cover that). Continue to schedule a mid to late season non-conference game to give yourself more flexibility at the top of that year’s slate. Look for more neutral site opportunities as they automatically draw the eye of national pundits. If we play Notre Dame, don’t be afraid to schedule another P5 team to open the year as its most likely games against the Irish will be later in the season.
Our program is in as strong a place as it has been in a long while. We want to continue growing to become a national program, and that starts with wins for sure, but it also comes with how we can grab headlines each week, headlines which leads to more votes in AP Polls, which leads to topics of debates/discussions by talking heads, which leads to recruits seeing us trending on social media. Is it a bigger risk? Absolutely. It takes the chance that in a down year we could be fighting for a bowl bid in the last couple games of a season and no one wants to see us take a step back to being satisfied with six wins. But I say that this scheduling risk is worth the reward and if the wine and cheese crowd down the road can figure out how to make it work, then there’s no reason a real football school like State can’t either.