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Tripping hazards for NC State in 2021

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I try to identify weak points in an unusually complete football team

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl - North Carolina State v Vanderbilt Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

There is certainly a lot of optimism surrounding NC State’s upcoming football season, and the seemingly endless list of returning players justifies such a mindset. The completeness of the team is what makes it a particularly compelling group, as it’s hard to find even one area that truly scares the crap out of you. But I tried anyway.

Penalties and general sloppiness

Dave Doeren has evolved a lot as a football coach over the last few years, but one thing that evolution has not been able to dispense are these frustrating moments of sloppiness that seem to poke their head out just when you think State has it figured out. To be fair, every team goes through this, but from a potentially subjective fan’s perspective, it certainly feels like NC State has been overly prone to moments of self-sabotage. These did not go away last year, but the Pack overachieved because it was able to overcome them.

NC State was 116th in the country in penalty yards per game last season. That’s just ghastly. The Pack’s sloppiness really showed through over the last four games, where it was a mess against Liberty, Kentucky, and the first half of the Syracuse game. It was 2-1 in these games thanks to some huge late efforts, but it really should have been 3-0 without a great deal of sweat. This was really a big theme in many of the losses in 2016 and 2017 too, both years where, in retrospect, State had a realistic chance to win 10 games.

Overcoming sloppiness is great but dispatching of it entirely is even better, because even the most resilient teams will eventually lose a toss-up game if they continue to maximize the number of them.

The trenches

The lines, particularly the defensive one, have traditionally been a strong point for NC State under Dave Doeren, and there’s reason to believe that will continue this year. This area of the field is also where State had the most starters depart though. If there is a place with a chance to bottleneck NC State this year, the trenches are probably the strongest bet. On the defensive side, this comes exclusively from the need to replace Alim McNeil, who was probably the best player on the team last year and played a relatively thankless but critical role on the defense.

State has a stable of former blue-chippers to give those snaps to, which should give them an opportunity to at least tread water. Everybody returning on the edge sets this up to be a pretty good uni-ah crap, this is supposed to be the pessimistic view of things. I can’t stop the optimism! It’s coming out of me like I ate a Double Optimism Quesarito from Taco Bell exactly four minutes ago.

Anyway the point is State could face some issues trying to replace its rock on the defensive line. The offensive line is probably more likely to present issues. That sounds insane at first when you think about Ikem Ekwonu and Grant Gibson being the players that they are, but the group as a whole actually has a fair amount of growing to do from last year. State was 11th in the ACC in yards before contact, a rushing statistic that’s primarily defined by a line’s ability to block. It had some good showings, such as the Wake Forest game, but was inconsistent over the course of the season, which is also true of pass protection. It’s not that State is going to be bad on the offensive line this year, but everything else being the way it is has prompted some pretty serious expectations for this team. The offensive line has the most growing to do if State is going to meet or exceed those, and there is nothing that handcuffs offensive talent at the skill positions more than a struggling offensive line.

The 4th quarter

It’s likely that all roads will lead here for NC State. I mean, technically yes, it is a given that everything leads to the 4th quarter because that’s the last quarter, but you know what I mean. Really three of the last five seasons have been defined by NC State’s record in games that were decided in the fourth quarter, and that’s not going anywhere this year. SP+ gives NC State between a 40% and a 60% chance of winning five of the twelve games on its schedule. The line between a breakthrough double-digit win season and 6-6 could prove to be pretty thin this year.

The line between 8-3 and 5-6 last year proved to be pretty thin as well (5 points to be exact), but NC State was good in the fourth quarter and just a few sequences changed the entire feeling around the program. The Pack has traditionally failed to produce these sequences before last season, and there’s a good chance it will need to carry that ability over from last year if it is to do something special this year, because there will be close games.