Monday, April 28, 2014

Even the Losers: NC State

Over the past three seasons, 210 teams have participated in bowl games. 47 of those teams had losing records in the years immediately preceding their bowl game. This semi-regular piece will showcase the losers from 2013 who just might find themselves participating in Capital One Bowl Week in 2014. For our eleventh installment, we return to the ACC where we check in on the NC State Wolfpack.

NC State

2013 Record: 3-9 (0-8 ACC)

Summary: So you've decided to can your coach after three consecutive bowl bids. You're not into this mediocrity situation. No sir. You are NC State. You expect better things of yourself. Why, you last won the ACC in...1979. Wow, has it been that long? Three and half decades sure go by mighty quick. Regardless, you just hitched your wagon to a bright mid-major star. What could go wrong? The season began promisingly enough with a beatdown of a Louisiana Tech team that had won nine games the season before. However, a sign of trouble appeared on the horizon when the Wolfpack needed a late field goal to slip by IAA Richmond. Twelve days later, the Wolfpack shook off the Richmond game and hung tough with a strong Clemson team in a nationally televised Thursday night conference game. The Wolfpack followed that strong showing up with another mid-major bludgeoning in Raleigh, this time of Central Michigan. So after a quartet of games, the Wolfpack stood 3-1, with the lone loss coming to a Clemson team that would finish the season with a scant two defeats. And then...the Wolfpack would not win another game all season. They lost to great teams (Florida State beat them by 32), they lost to bad teams (Wake Forest beat them by 15), they lost to mid-majors (East Carolina beat them by 14), and they even lost to...Duke! All in all, it marked the first time an ACC team other than Duke went winless in the conference since Wake Forest in 1995. It should be noted, Virginia kept them company at the bottom of the standings, finishing without a conference win for the first time since 1981.

What Did the Wolfpack Do Well?
Return punts. You have to peruse a litany of statistics before you find something the Wolfpack was positively proficient at. However, punt returns is an area where NC State excelled. As a team, the Wolfpack averaged over 13 yards per return (fifteenth nationally). Senior receiver Rashard Smith did most of the damage, averaging a robust 14.12 yards per return and taking two punts to the house. If it weren't for the exploits of another Tar Heel state return man, Smith may have received a little more national notoriety. 

What Didn't the Wolfpack Do Well?
Play defense. NC State allowed an in-conference worst 6.29 yards per play in 2013. After some early success against Clemson (surprising) and Wake Forest (not so surprising), the Wolfpack allowed 6.62 yards per play to their final six league opponents. In their final six games, five ACC clashes and an in-state battle with East Carolina, the Wolfpack allowed nearly 40 points per game (39.2).

The Wolfpack Over the Past Four Years:
The following table lists NC State's performance (in conference play only) in a few key categories and their respective conference rank in those categories. To help you read the table here is a handy translator.
Conf: The Conference NC State played in. With the ever-changing college football landscape, this is helpful.
Coach: Who was leading these yahoos into battle?
Rec: Conference Record
YPP: Yards per play. The number of yards per play the Wolfpack averaged in conference play.
YPA: Yards per play allowed. The number of yards per play the Wolfpack allowed in conference play.
Net: Yards per play net. The difference in YPP and YPA. Higher is better.
OTD: Offensive touchdowns. Touchdowns scored by the offense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
DTD: Defensive touchdowns. Touchdowns allowed by the defense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
Pythag: Adjusted Pythagorean Record. Take offensive touchdowns and defensive touchdowns and plug them into a handy formula to estimate the number of conference wins. For a full rundown of the APR, continue reading here.

In their final three seasons under Tom O'Brien, the Wolfpack were essentially a shade below average. However, the path they took to get their each season was different. After being average on both sides of the ball in 2010, the Wolfpack let Russell Wilson pick up and move to Wisconsin. With future Tampa Bay draft pick (and statue) Mike Glennon under center, the offense cratered, falling to second to last in the ACC. The defense picked up the slack though, ranking second in the conference. A testament to the strength of that defense is that four players were taken in the following spring's NFL draft. Perhaps not surprisingly, with the loss of so much talent, the Wolfpack defense faltered in 2012, ranking in the bottom third of the league. In his second season as a starter, Mike Glennon and the Wolfpack offense improved, ensuring the team did not endure a disastrous season. That would happen in 2013. Losing Glennon to the draft, the offense regressed again and with with the loss of star defensive back David Amerson and to a lesser extent Earl Wolff, the defense ended up being the worst in the ACC.

The 2014 Schedule:
The Wolfpack have taken the SEC route in terms of non-conference scheduling in 2014. Their opponents include a IAA school (Presbyterian), a pair of IA neophytes (Georgia Southern and Old Dominion), and South Florida. Old Dominion was a solid IAA program and finished 8-4 in their transitional year in 2013, but against the four IA teams on their schedule, they were outscored by over 20 points per game. Georgia Southern did memorably beat Florida last season, but were just 4-4 in their final season of play in the Southern Conference. South Florida could be a tricky game since it is on the road and Willie Taggart will have had an additional year to get the Bulls in gear, but anything less than a 3-1 mark in non-conference action would be a massive disappointment. The Wolfpack will likely need all the wins they can muster outside the conference because their ACC slate is not very forgiving. The Wolfpack host Boston College, Florida State, Georgia Tech, and Wake Forest in ACC play. The Wolfpack should be solid favorites against Boston College and Wake, and they have beaten Florida State three out of the last four times in Raleigh, but these Seminoles appear to have returned to elite status. NC State will probably also be an underdog to Georgia Tech meaning a split of their conference home games could be the best case scenario. On the road, the Wolfpack face Clemson, Louisville, North Carolina, and Syracuse. The Wolfpack will likely be prohibitive underdogs at Clemson, Louisville, and North Carolina, meaning their tilt in the Carrier Dome with Syracuse could be the difference between a bowl invite and another losing season.

Reason for Optimism:
(Almost) every team that beat NC State in 2013 was good. NC State lost nine times in 2013. However, eight of those losses came to teams that played in bowl games. Wake Forest was the only team with a losing record to beat the Wolfpack in 2013. True, only three of those teams finished the season ranked (Clemson, Duke, and Florida State), but East Carolina won ten games, and North Carolina finished the season with a nice run after a 1-5 start. Don't get me wrong, NC State did not play an NFL-caliber schedule in 2013, but there were very few terrible teams on the schedule (and NC State crushed those teams for the most part). The Wolfpack were not your typical woebegone winless conference team in 2013. Duke teams of the previous decade would have killed to be as good as this NC State team.

Final Prognosis:
One thing is for certain, NC State will not go winless in the ACC in 2014. I have the utmost confidence in that. Realistically, NC State should finish at least 3-1 in their non-conference games, and a clean sweep of that slate would not be surprising. Once conference play begins, the Wolfpack face a quartet of very difficult games: Florida State, at Clemson, at Louisville, and at North Carolina. A return to the postseason will hing on whether NC State can continue their home dominance of Wake Forest (just one home loss to the Deacons since 1984) and Boston College (3-1 versus the Eagles in Raleigh as conference opponents). I think the Wolfpack will take that pair of games and pull off at least one other upset in their remaining six conference matchups (home to Georgia Tech or at Syracuse appear the most likely to me). Based on their non-conference performance, this will leave NC State with another six or seven win regular season, or exactly where they were under Tom O'Brien.

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