2021 was a fantastic year for the NC State football program. No, the team didn’t capture an ACC title or hit double-digit wins (thanks a lot, UCLA...), but anyone who watched the team knows just how good they were. Sometimes that’s hard to quantify, so let’s look at it in the frame of advanced metrics (namely SP+) and the history of the program.
First off, Lou Holtz is a freaking wizard! The 1972 team had a 24.3-point turnaround in SP+, going from the 116th ranked (9th percentile) team the year prior to the 14th ranked (89th percentile) team. I’d imagine that has to be one of the best - if not the very best - one year turnaround in FBS history. For comparison, Baylor going from a 2-7 squad in 2020 to a 12-2 team in 2021 was an improvement of “just” 14.3 points via SP+. For another perspective, the widely considered “Greatest College Football Coach of All-Time”, Nick Saban, only improved Alabama by 1.4 points via SP+ in his first season in Tuscaloosa.
Speaking of that 14th-place SP+ ranking of the 1972 NC State team, that’s tied for the highest finish by any NC State team in the history of SP+ rankings (1970-2021). The team it’s tied with? The 2021 Wolfpack football squad.
The 1973 team fell one spot shy in the rankings of matching the 1972 squad, but it exceeded it in the actual SP+ rating, notching a 14.8 which outpaced the prior year by 2.5 points. That 14.8-point season is the 2nd best in school history. The best mark? The 2021 Wolfpack football squad.
I’m not here to try and convince you that the 2021 team was the best in school history. Just because SP+ thought highly of the Wolfpack’s efforts a year ago doesn’t mean that all advanced metrics systems do; Sports Reference’s SRS (Simple Rating System), to pick one, says 2021 was the 12th best season for the Pack since 1970. The truth is probably somewhere in between, but that’s besides the point.
The point is that 2021 was a great year, and more importantly is a great starting point for what the 2022 season can be.
Sticking with SP+ for a minute more, only twice before in program history has NC State posted back-to-back double-digit SP+ ratings (1972-1973, 2002-2003). The first of those teams featured the greatest coach in NC State football history (Holtz) and a 1973 team that returned the best backfield in school history (Stan Fritts, Willie Burden, Charlie Young, and Roland Hooks) and the Buckey twins (Dave and Don). The second of those teams featured the greatest quarterback in school history (Philip Rivers), one of the greatest receivers in school history (Jerricho Cotchery), and a sensationally dynamic running back (T.A. McLendon).
While the 1973 team returned 9-of-11 starters on offense, including those mentioned above as well as offensive linemen Rick Druschel and Bill Yoest, the defense had to replace 7 starters, including all 3 linebackers (Ed Hoffman, Bryan Wall, and Stauber Wilson). The 2003 team returned 6 starters on offense, with offensive linemen Chris Colmer, Sean Locklear, and Jed Paulsen joining those already mentioned, but just 4 starters returned on a defense that had to replace Dantonio Burnette and Terrance Holt. Just one starter in the front seven (linebacker Pat Thomas) returned.
And this is the point: this year’s NC State squad has a much better starting point.
Yes, the offense must replace it’s top two rushers (Bam Knight, Ricky Person), top offensive lineman (Ikey Ekwonu), and top receiver (Emeka Emezie), but you know what helps ease that transition? Having one of the best QBs in school history.
Over the past two seasons totaling 16 games, Devin Leary has completed 64.5% of his passes for 4,323 yards, 43 TD, and 7 INT, for a QB Rating of 155.3. The only QB with a better 16-game run in Wolfpack history is Rivers (70.2%, 5,126 yards, 36 TD, 8 INT, 160.0 QB Rating), but he posted those numbers over his final 16 games in a State uniform. By the time that run began, Rivers already had 33 starts under his belt; Leary had 8.
No, a great QB isn’t going to make all your problems go away - if that were the case, that 2003 team would have finished with a better record than 8-5 (4-4) - but there are 7 offensive starters returning, including 4-of-5 offensive lineman. Furthermore, the players who are stepping up into starting jobs are coming from some of the best recruiting classes in program history and have spent time in the program developing. Talent helps, and so does experience and not having to rely on true freshmen.
Oh, and the defense. Yeah, let’s talk about the defense. Last year’s defense was really good, posting a 17.7 SP+ Defense rating (the lower the number, the better) that ranked 14th nationally. That was slightly better than the ratings of the 2002 defense (18.0 SP+ Def, 15th) and much better than the 1972 squad (21.0 SP+ Def, 69th).
NC State returns 10 starters from that 14th-ranked defense. That’s reason enough to expect at least a repeat performance.
By the way, did I mention that both coordinators return?
There’s a significant amount of hype surrounding this year’s team - something that we as Wolfpack fans are not used to hearing come from outside our ranks. Yeah, it’s weird. The hype is real, though. Let’s embrace it.
This team should be better than last year, and it may well end up being the best team in school history. Let’s enjoy it!