Today at No. 38: NC State
Coach: Dave Doeren (7-6, entering fifth season; 25-26 overall)
2016 record: 7-6, 3-5 in Atlantic Coast Conference, tied for fourth in Atlantic Division
Look back: NC State got off to a 4-1 start despite a surprising 33-30 setback against East Carolina. The Wolfpack showed their strength during a 24-17 overtime loss against Clemson, the team that went on to win the national title. It was the start of a four-game skid in ACC play, with three of the four defeats sealed by a touchdown or less. NC State rebounded to win three of its final four contests, including a 41-17 Independence Bowl victory over Vanderbilt.
Offenive starters returning: 8
Offenive starters lost: 5
Defenive starters returning: 8
Defenive starters lost: 3
Key losses: RB Matt Dayes, WR Bra’Lon Cherry, OL Joe Scelfo, CB Jack Tocho, DB Josh Jones, DB Dravious Wright.
Top returnees: DE Bradley Chubb, DT B.J. Hill, DT Justin Jones, DE Kentavious Street, HB Jaylen Samuels, QB Ryan Finley, WR Steph Louis, TE Cole Cook, OL Tony Adams, OL Will Richardson, OL Tyler Jones, OL Garrett Bradbury, LB Jerod Fernandez, LB Airius Moore, DB Shawn Boone, CB Mike Steven, P A.J. Cole.
Strengths: The Wolfpack boast one of the top defensive lines in the country headlined by DE Bradley Chubb while multi-purpose speedster Jaylen Samuels highlights an offense looking to make more explosive plays in order to disrupt Florida State, Clemson and Louisville atop the ACC’s Atlantic Division.
NC State’s defense allowed just 108.6 rushing yards per game in 2016, good for the eighth-best mark in college football. The Wolfpack also held opponents to an average of 4.42 yards per play on first down, ranking second in the nation. With eight senior starters returning to the defensive side of the ball, the Wolfpack will rely heavily on their defense to carry them in 2017.
NC State’s experience as a whole is also a strength. This season’s team, featuring 22 seniors, might be the most experienced in school history.
Weaknesses: NC State has to shore up its ability to put points on the board. During five of six losses last season, the Wolfpack barely scored 20 points thanks to an inefficient offense and poor play in the kicking game.
After losing RB Matt Dayes, Samuels and converted RB Nyheim Hines will be counted on to provide big plays to move the chains while QB Ryan Finley directs the offense. The Wolfpack hope their experienced offensive line can lead the way for the unit.
Outlook: NC State, looking to finish above .500 in conference play for the first time under Doeren’s leadership, has a daunting schedule overall — opening against South Carolina and later facing Florida State, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh on the road. Doeren’s team will be tested early and often, but it has the experience needed to make some noise in the ACC this season.