STS: Shakin the Southland
BTP: Backing the Pack
STS: Last season we watched Pete Thomas and Brandon Mitchell each get starts at QB for the Wolfpack, but the offense was barely mediocre regardless who started. With Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett now at the helm, the offense is ticking at over 40 points per game. While much of that came against light competition, they put up 41 against Florida State and Brissett has a cool 13-1 TD-INT ratio (and one of them looked this good). How much do you credit him for the improvement and who else deserves credit for the offensive turn around?
BTP: Brissett has been a huge part of the turnaround, no question about it. Having a quarterback that can actually execute what Matt Canada wants to do AND make good decisions makes an enormous difference. I mean, we're a threat to do stuff in the passing game now. It's crazy.
Mitchell and Thomas combined for 11 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions last season and averaged a pick for every 26.5 attempts. Brissett is making mistakes far less often and playing much more efficiently.
The offensive line and running backs deserve credit here as well - Dave Doeren and company want to key off the ground game as much as possible, and so far they've been able to find consistent success in that area. It helps that State has been able to keep the offensive line largely intact this season, whereas last year, for example, injuries forced the Wolfpack to move a guard to tackle. Not ideal.
STS: Dave Doeren appeared to be a solid hire for the program when they decided to move on from Tom O'Brien before last season. Obviously, year one was rough, but things are slowly moving in a positive direction. What's the general feeling about the staff and the direction of the program.
BTP: The vibe is mostly positive; whether or not Doeren is the long-term answer remains far from settled. Doeren's immediate task was to change the tenor in recruiting, which is where Tom O'Brien failed miserably. The results of the sorry recruiting efforts of the O'Brien staff were plain enough in 2013, and Doeren will be working for years to overcome that hurdle.
Doeren's staff has been able to find more traction in North Carolina and overall, but they have a lot of work to do in order to begin seriously attracting the type of blue-chip talent that Clemson and Florida State manage to reel in every year.
The goal isn't necessarily to recruit on par with FSU or Clemson, because NC State is probably never getting to that point, but rather to close the gap significantly. I think Doeren's staff is capable of this, and finishing 2014 with a bowl trip would help quite a bit after their ugly debut season slowed their recruiting momentum.
STS: NC State has had big name coaches like Lou Holtz and Monte Kiffin, but few have had sustained success there. I've previously called NC State a "sleeping giant" due to their large student and alumni populations, quality stadium, and passionate football fans (especially relative to the other in-state schools). When Tom O'Brien saw Raleigh on a gameday, he saw the potential and was interested impressed to leave BC. So what has held them back in all the years where Philip Rivers hasn't been at QB?
BTP: For a long time, lack of commitment was a problem. NC State fell way behind in the facilities race, and when you combine that with a lack of overall tradition, Wolfpack football became a difficult sell. It also didn't help that Mack Brown was rolling at UNC in the 1990s. (Thanks for fixing that situation, Texas.)
Chuck Amato fixed the facilities problem when he arrived in 2000 and also improved the school's football culture quite a bit overall. He was the closest anyone has been to establishing a consistent top 25 program for a long period of time - his early recruiting efforts were outstanding before everything fell apart around him. For a brief time, State had enough overall talent - especially on the defensive side - to compete with nearly anybody.
Amato seems to be the only coach who's figured out how to take NC State's recruiting to a high level, though, and ultimately that's what it comes down to. The Wolfpack has more to sell now than it did in the 80s or 90s, but I also think the recruiting environment holds more challenges. Clemson's recruiting surge under Dabo hasn't helped, nor has Steve Spurrier's revival effort at South Carolina. Butch Jones is making Tennessee into a major player in NC again.
More in-state programs have either been established or made the move to the FBS level. There's just a ton of competition for the talent in North Carolina, and particularly with the SEC having such an edge in prestige/perceived value, it's difficult for a program like State's to get a foot in the door with bigger names.
Until that reality begins to shift, NC State will remain stuck making regular trips to mediocre bowl games and little else, which is pretty much this program defined over the last 25 years.
STS: Can you give us a key player - aside from Brissett - that we should look out for on Saturday?
BTP: I'll go with Shadrach Thornton. NC State's been taking a committee approach to running the ball all season, but I don't think there's any question that Thornton is the Pack's most talented runner. He had a season-high 18 carries against Florida State, grinding out tough yards by routinely shrugging off initial hits. He has a knack for fighting his way though the first tackler for yards after contact, which is not something we've gotten from Matt Dayes or Tony Creecy. I wouldn't be surprised to see NC State lean more heavily on Thornton as the year progresses.
STS: What are the keys for victory for Clemson? for NC State?
BTP: NC State needs to find continued success on the ground in what will be easily its most difficult road environment so far (the only other road game State's played was at USF, which, yeah). If Clemson effectively takes that away from the Pack the way it did against FSU and UNC, then there is more pressure on Jacoby Brissett than we want, and it gets Vic Beasley into ideal tee-off-on-the-QB mode, which would probably be unpleasant for the Pack.
Clemson I think simply needs to be patient. There will be gaps to exploit in the Wolfpack secondary, and they've yet to show they can affect a quarterback's game with pressure by the front four. I would expect, then, that Watson will have plenty of opportunities to make plays with his arm.
STS: Finally, how do you see this one playing out?
BTP: While I feel better about NC State's chances than I did before the season began, I don't think we'll be able to overcome both the road environment and Clemson's superior talent to win the game. Given how poorly State's defense continues to play against offenses with a pulse, an upset seems highly unlikely.
I expect Clemson to find consistent success moving the ball - the Tigers might not put up 50 the way they did against the Tar Heels, but I can easily see them getting 30+, and I suspect that will be plenty.
NC State is due for a game where it implodes a bit, be it with turnovers or penalties or both, and this kind of feels like the week it'll happen. Hope I'm wrong about that!
In the end, Clemson's sustained offensive success probably leads to a double-digit win.
STS: We thank Steven for giving us some insight and getting us ready for the Textile Bowl. Our answers to his questions will be posted on Backing the Pack.