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Breaking the mode aka Dave’s not so mean pursuit of a new median


NCAA Football: ACC Kickoff Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to quantify expectations as an NC State fan. Most years, both the football and basketball teams occupy this “good and sometimes very good but not great” medium range. Outside voices say that State fans should just be satisfied with that modicum of success.

But at what point is it okay to want more?

When this topic came up in our Roundtable discussion, this is what I said :

“Over/under 7.5 wins in the regular season

Essad Malik: I’m taking the over, because it has to be over. This is a difficult schedule, no doubt. Getting a road game at Miami as your draw from the Coastal is tough when you’ll already have your hands full with Chapel Hill Community College (CHCC). But I’m still taking the over, because now is the time. This is THE most stacked team since the 2018 squad, which was the most stacked team in years. They fell short in opportunities that I’m bullish this team can avoid. It has to be the over, because Trevor Lawrence is finally gone. Even though his replacement is still crazy good, Clemson seems slightly less invincible now. I am not totally sold on Mack Brown and Sam Howell’s ability to win with so much production having left. And Miami was on the ropes last year against State without Leary. I believe in the Dave Doeren era, BUT... if he’s ever going to compete with the top 3-4 teams in the conference or have a chance at a conference title, now is the time because next year is likely rebuilding in key spots. You build for a few years then repeat. Miami is beatable. And honestly, Dave HAS to win in Winston this time. Mississippi State is on the road, but should be a win based on their performance last year. I think if Dave is ever going to win > or = 9 wins, this team is stacked enough to where it has to happen now. I’ll take a loss to Clemson and CHCC, along with some other random loss, and ride the over to 9 wins.”

Many predictions for the Wolfpack this season are revolving around 7-8 wins in the regular season. In reading them, I couldn’t shake the feeling like I’ve seen a LOT of 7-8 win seasons over the last 21 years of NC State football. Any time the team finishes with 7 wins and goes to a random small-ish bowl, I think to myself, “again?”

Was I imagining this number? In my aging age, I can’t trust my memory as much as I used to. It’s a good thing someone’s been writing down all the results every year so I can go back and check.

Let’s look at the numbers.. even though we all know what numbers are.

Number of times a win total has occurred from 2000-2020

Going back to the Chuck Amato era to the present is enough of a sample size to show how NC State has performed over time... It’s more time than the age of many of the players on this team (feel old yet?). It also provides a clean starting point since he started in 2000.

I am focusing these numbers on the regular season. That center portion of the graph really defines this modern era of NC State football: 16 out of 21 seasons falling between 5-8 wins. In my mind there had been more 8 win seasons, but not for the regular season it turns out.

During this era, there have been 15 bowl appearances, with a 9-6 record.

The above includes Dave Doeren. Now, how about the same but just for Doeren?

Dave Doeren era win frequency (2013-2020)

What does all this mean?

NC State has clearly been in the upper middle class of teams that have seen above average success, year after year. The median and mode are 7, with the mean being 6.4ish considering the few seasons on the left end pulling the average down. The numbers are in line with what my aging brain feels like it remembers about the last two decades.

On the one hand: Yes of course, there are many schools across the country that would love to have this level of success, as their swings up and down are more steep.

But I’m left with the same feeling many Wolfpack fans are having these days. These numbers show the average performance across three different coaches across 21 years, this is not a small sample size. Getting 7-8 wins has been shown to be the floor, we know this but it should NOT be the expectation. It is natural to begin to want more, regardless of what your current average level is, that’s life as a sports fan. Georgia fans aren’t content with winning 10 games, they want to win the championship. There’s tiers to fan expectation, and everyone wants a little more than what they already have. Currently there’s an undercurrent of complacency in the fanbase. It’s partly to do with the fans mixed feelings about Dave (which I don’t personally share), and also because over this time period we’re reviewing, the average performance hasn’t changed. Getting the same number of wins every year is not easy, but without bigger peaks, it’s natural to feel this is routine.

But what does this mean for Dave Doeren?

Dave Doeren exists JUST to the right of the average level of performance, notwithstanding two obvious low peaks off to the left. He’s only missed a bowl twice in 8 seasons Dave owns 3 out of the 5 seasons to the right of 7 wins, but also 2 out of the 3 below 5 wins. I’m willing, and I’d bet Pack fans as a whole are as well, to forget we ever saw those two seasons down to the left with a big step forward this year.

It’s a given that he will leave NC State (at some point, hopefully not for a long time) as the winningest coach in program history. I’m a fan of everything he’s done to build a culture here, and he’s really adopted the school. If he could just shift those 7-8 win years to averaging 9-10 wins with regularity, there’s no telling how long he can stay here. Now obviously, this is a hard step up to make, and everyone in the country is trying to do it. The school and AD are clearly putting focus on football, as they see a greater chance at a path to success than basketball (that program is the subject for another day). But things are trending in the direction to make this next step, and it starts with this year.

Rosters like this don’t come around that often. Doeren is not yet (and may never be) at the point where he can just pump the shotgun and reload the next wave of players waiting in the wings. He’s trending in the direction of being able to have less of a down cycle, but only a few select schools can truly live by this model. Almost everyone else has to build to a crest, taking advantage of the height of the waves when they come. This roster won’t be here next year, many of these guys will be playing on Sundays next year. Without a major leap in recruiting, this is likely to be at or near the talent cap of the Dave Doeren era. Given that, the performance of this team will show his ceiling.

Is the schedule favorable? NOPE. Getting Clemson and unc at home are the only two potential bright spots. Mississippi State, BC, Miami, FSU AAAAAAND Wake are all on the road. That’s a big pile of yikes. But four out those five are teams that NC State “SHOULD” beat, road game notwithstanding. If you’re good, it doesn’t matter where you play.

If a trip to the ACC Championship game is ever going to happen under Dave Doeren, now is the time. That may be a bit bold, but I will still hold with my prediction of 9 regular season wins. Not just because the talent is more than capable of it, but I also see this season as a true evaluation of the Doeren era. Given experienced talent and a moderately tough schedule, how well can NC State expect to do?

Life as a State fan is defined by getting excited in the preseason, only to be let down later. If I know that going in, I can’t be disappointed, right? Right?