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Blue Chip Depth Chart Analysis: Clemson at NC State Preview

North Carolina State v Notre Dame Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Evidently, Clemson used its bye week well. They looked extremely well prepared for Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense, suffocating it and forcing the Yellow Jackets into third-and-long situations. TaQuon Marshall was out of his comfort zone and could not connect with receivers to convert those key first downs. Clemson led by three scores for much of the rain soaked night and won by a healthy 14 point-margin, 24-10.

In addition to the defense looking re-invigorated, the offense, at least in the first half, found its stride in the passing game. Kelly Bryant threw for two TDs despite coming into the game with only four on the entire season. One was a quick pass to the outside where Deon Cain did most of the work, beating the defender and taking it to the house, but the other was a rare deep route to Milan Richard. The Tigers (still) rank just 45th in the S&P+’s explosiveness metric, so seeing the improvement there is especially encouraging. Check the big plays out below:

This week brings the most anticipated Textile bowl in years. Clemson travels to Raleigh to face an NC State team that has notched wins over Florida State and Louisville, teams that were ranked 12th and 17th when they faced the Wolfpack. The perception of these wins over traditional ACC Atlantic powers boosted the Wolfpack all the way to #14 in the AP poll, prior to last week, however FSU and Louisville have combined to go just 7-9 (5-9 when you exclude Louisville’s wins over Murray State and Kent State). One could argue that their win over Syracuse is their most impressive (in hindsight of course). They certainly don’t have a win as impressive as vs. Auburn, at Virginia Tech, or even arguably vs. Georgia Tech.

If you follow Shakin’ the Southland regularly (thank you!), you likely know I’ve been down on NC State all year. That’s not to say they’re a bad team (my rhetoric was likely over-the-top in a handful of playful tweets). In fact, their S&P+ ranking of #35 feels too low, but the hype around them both in the pre-season and when they peaked at #14 prior to their loss to Notre Dame was undeserved and frankly a little silly.

A very good Notre Dame team exposed them last week by running for 318 yards and securing a 35-14 win. While I’d like to use this space to gloat about how right I was about NC State being overrated, the eye test wasn’t nearly as bad as the score. Notre Dame clung to a 21-14 lead at halftime, but a fluky pick-six and injuries to several key players for NC State swung the game. NC State is a fringe top 25 team and going on the road to play them will not be easy. Fortunately, their loss to Notre Dame means we avoid another road night game in what would have been one of the biggest games in Carter-Finely history with a playoff bid legitimately on the line for both teams.

So, let’s dive into the metrics, but first, our usual explanation and caveat.

We've divided the offense and the defense into three portions each. For the offense, the starting QB, the starting O-line, and the two-deep for the remaining skill positions (WR, TE, RB) are each weighted to represent one-third of the overall offense rating. Similarly on defense, the two-deep at D-line, linebacker, and in the secondary are each weighted to represent one-third of the overall defense rating, regardless of scheme.

This shouldn’t have to be said, but there are always players who over-perform their original star rating (e.g., Hunter Renfrow, Eric Dungey) as well as those who underperform their star ratings. Additionally, there are occasions where the less talented team wins (e.g., 2017 Clemson v. Syracuse), but there are exponentially more examples where the more talented team wins (e.g., 2009-2017 Clemson vs. Wake Forest). As such, this is only one portion of the analysis we will publish on the upcoming game, but we hope it’s an especially informative one.

As shown in the chart above, Clemson will have a decisive talent advantage on offense. With an average star rating of 2.97 across the offense, NC State’s talent-level falls well below previous opponents Auburn (3.80) and Louisville (3.40) and slightly below Virginia Tech (3.00).

QB Ryan Finley has been very good for them this season. He’s a transfer from Boise State now in his second year in Raleigh. He’s taken care of the ball to the tune of a 12-1 TD-INT ratio (he threw his first one last week against Notre Dame on a play where he thought it was offsides and he tossed it up assuming it was a “free play”). The S&P+ ranks NC State’s offense above our own. That may in part be due to our tendency to “turtle” before garbage time, but nevertheless the facts are the facts.

NC State’s offensive line has allowed only nine sacks all season (T-14th least in the nation). Notre Dame got just one against them, but according to SB Nation’s NC State Blog, Backing the Pack:

“For most of the season Finley has had eons to stand in the pocket and do his quarterbacking thing. This was not the case in South Bend...”

Notre Dame is tied for 38th in the nation with 19 sacks. Clemson is #1 with a whopping 32 sacks. The Wolfpack have not played a defense like Clemson’s, which ranks #3 in the S&P+ advanced stats. The S&P+ defensive rankings of their past opponents are as follows:

  • Notre Dame #18
  • Marshall #19
  • FSU #40
  • South Carolina #47
  • Syracuse #60
  • Pittsburgh #91

Clemson will be a different kind of test for their offense.

RB Nyheim Hines left their game against Notre Dame (ankle) after just two carries for six yards. Other Wolfpack backs managed just 65 rushing yards. If Hines is unable to play or is severely limited against Clemson, the Wolfpack rushing attack will struggle against a Tiger rush defense that allows just 3.15 YPC (compared to 3.43 for Notre Dame’s defense).

HB/TE Jaylen Samuels is the most interesting player on their offense. He has 474 receiving yards and 3 receiving TDs and 209 rushing yards and 7rushing TDs. He is jersey #1 and surely the player to keep an eye on, especially if Hines is out/limited.

Now, let’s take a look at the defenses:

NC State’s D-line, if healthy, truly is top-notch. DE Bradley Chubb is a future NFL first-rounder who will make an impact on the game. Their defensive line boasts three four-star talents. Aside from the D-line though, only one other player in the two-deep is a former four-star recruit.

NC State’s defense is not elite from a recruited-talent standpoint (see chart above), an advanced stats standpoint (S&P+ ranks them just 68th), or a traditional stats standpoint (they rank T-48th in scoring defense with just over 24ppg allowed and 59th in total defense with 384 ypg allowed).

Had NC State beaten Notre Dame, I’d feel much differently about this game. Not only would that have proven that NC State isn’t merely a product of preseason hype and overrated opponents, but it likely would have set-up this game as a clash of top 10 teams at night in front of a incredible crowd. Instead, it’ll be a 3:30 kick in front of a crowd that has to be pessimistic about their chances.

If Kelly Bryant hadn’t proved healthy, I’d feel much differently about this game. He’d have been a sitting duck for one of the nation’s best pass rushers sack leader, Bradley Chubb (7 sacks). Instead, he’ll be back to the running threat that makes the Tiger offense go.

The advanced stats favor Clemson, the traditional stats favor Clemson, the injuries favor Clemson, and the historical records (Tigers have won 12/13 against the Wolfpack) favor Clemson. Despite the six game win streak between losses to South Carolina and Notre Dame, I am still unconvinced that NC State is a top-tier opponent as many prognosticators would have you believe. My gut has said this all year. The data support it. Bet on the Tigers to notch yet another Textile Bowl victory.