No.1 fifth-ranked Clemson Tigers are still trying to pick up the pieces from their 24th consecutive victory last week. This Saturday, they travel to Raleigh, NC, to take on the NC State Wolfpack in a resumption of conference play.
STS: NC State, despite not winning a conference title in recent memory, has had a pretty solid run of quarterbacks over the years (Ryan Finley, Jacoby Brissett, Mike Glennon, Russell Wilson, and Philip Rivers to name a few). This year, though, is a different story, as the Wolfpack have had a revolving door at that position. Who do you think is most poised to take firm hold of the starting position this year and beyond?
BTP: Somebody who isn’t on campus yet? The worrisome thing about this season is that none of the quarterbacks who have played have shown a whole lot of potential. The season would be far more palatable if NC State had a guy taking his lumps who looked like he’d be much better for it, beginning with next season. But I don’t see a long-term answer here, so I’ll be curious this offseason to see if the coaching staff with a graduate transfer.
Or maybe they’ll just wait on Ryan Finley’s brother, Ben, who is a part of State’s 2020 class, and hope that good quarterbacking runs in the family.
STS: The Wolfpack have struggled in a down ACC so far this year, getting only one win (against a disappointing Syracuse team) in four conference games. What have been the primary 2-3 reasons behind their struggles?
BTP: I could blame the quarterbacks in three different ways, and that is definitely the bulk of the problem. NC State’s anemic passing game puts a lot of pressure on an inexperienced (and banged up) offensive line to create openings for the running game, and that sure as heck ain’t working. The Wolfpack’s offense has been so dreadful that it doesn’t seem to matter at all if the defense on the other side also stinks. Being limited to 16 points or less in three ACC games says plenty.
This roster also has been gutted by injuries, including season-ending injuries to two offensive tackles, a starting cornerback, the team’s best run-blocking tight end, and its best deep threat at wide receiver. The team’s already-iffy cornerback group has been decimated and hasn’t had both starters on the field since week one. This roster isn’t deep enough to handle all of this without it hurting performance.
STS: Looking ahead to Saturday’s game: When Clemson has the ball, which individual and/or position group matchups give you the most concern? And which, if any, give you some optimism?
BTP: Pretty much all of the matchups are concerning. Everything is a nightmare. NC State’s defense has held up okay when the defensive line has played well, in the process partially hiding the poor secondary behind them. It would take an exceptionally dominant performance by that front to prevent Clemson from hitting layup after layup in the passing game, as Trevor Lawrence and that receiving corps is a huge mismatch for the Wolfpack secondary.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see NC State’s defensive line stall a drive or two by itself, but I would be surprised if the defense gets stops with any sort of consistency overall.
STS: On the other side, when NC State has the ball, which matchups give you the most concern? The most optimism?
BTP: Clemson also has the best defensive unit that NC State has seen this year, and like I mentioned earlier, the Pack’s offense hasn’t even been able to take advantage of the average/poor defenses in this league. I would not expect NC State to miraculously look alive on this side of the ball. The offense getting shut down completely is far more likely. Honestly I wouldn’t feel terribly better if all of Clemson’s defensive linemen had an arm tied behind their backs while the linebackers were forced to play on pogo sticks. I mean, it would help, and it would look hilarious, but I don’t think it’d change the outcome.
With that said, I recommend that Clemson try to play like that anyway.
STS: With an overall record of 4-4 to this point, the Wolfpack’s streak of five consecutive bowl games is in jeopardy. Do you think they can keep the streak alive this year?
BTP: After Clemson, NC State finishes the season with Georgia Tech, Louisville, and UNC, and the last two are at home, so bowl eligibility is at least plausible. It would definitely require beating Tech in Atlanta, because I don’t see the Pack doing better than 1-1 against the other two, which have both looked better than NC State this season. But NC State has been extra awful on the road, so who knows how that GT game will go.
If I had to bet, I’d bet on no bowl this year.
STS: I’d be remiss to not ask about head coach Dave Doeren. How do you feel about the overall job he’s done since taking over in 2013? He’s always rubbed me the wrong way, particularly with that laptop comment from a couple of years ago, but at least he was more toned down following the loss to Clemson last season. In any event, I’m curious if the prevailing sentiment is optimism/satisfaction with five bowl appearances in six years (and back-to-back nine-win seasons), or if it’s disappointment/impatience over a lack of Atlantic Division titles and 10-win seasons.
BTP: The frustration level is up this year, understandably, but in general I don’t think people feel like he’s doing poorly enough to warrant being fired after winning nine games in back-to-back years. Some people feel that way, though, and they’re really loud online.
I think folks feel pretty good about the last few years, though of course we would have liked to have a breakthrough 10-win season in there—and damn, the Pack was close both years to getting it done. I don’t think anybody holds the lack of division titles against Doeren—that’s never going to be a point against the head coach for me as long as Clemson is at its current elite level.
He’s not getting fired, and the last month will go a long way toward determining how much pressure he’s going to feel in 2020. Get bowl eligible and beat UNC to close out this season? That’s going to provide leeway. Collapse instead, with a UNC loss thrown in there? That’ll raise the heat quite a bit.
STS: The Wolfpack face a tall order in hosting the undefeated Tigers in primetime, especially with Clemson perhaps feeling a bit ornery after the rigged initial College Football Playoff rankings had them ranked fifth. Clemson will be ~32-point favorites. What can the Wolfpack plausibly do to keep things interesting and at least give themselves a chance at pulling off a monumental upset?
BTP: Short of lucking their way into like a half dozen turnovers, I can’t conceive of a way for NC State to keep this game close deep into the second half. The offense has simply been too lifeless for me to conjure up a realistic scenario that isn’t a bloodbath in Clemson’s favor. I suspect the Tigers will cover that spread.
We hope you enjoyed this Q&A. A big thanks goes out to our guest, Steven, for answering our questions. Again, please consider following him on Twitter (@akulawolf), along with our host, @tom_dianora. In addition, you can check out the other side of the Q&A, where Tom answered some questions from Backing the Pack, here.