Mike Rose expects your skepticism when he uses “N.C. State,” “ACC title” and “College Football Playoff” in the same sentence.
The fifth-year senior defensive end also understands it doesn’t really matter what anyone else expects from the Wolfpack in the 2015 college football season.
“Nobody expected us to go 8-5 after going 3-9,” Rose said.
That’s why N.C. State is aiming for more this season. The Wolfpack progressed from 3-9 in Dave Doeren’s first season in 2013 to 8-5 last year, but there’s more to be had.
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Florida State and Clemson are still the favorites to continue their domination of the ACC, but what Rose sees is a chance.
The Seminoles, 13-1 a year ago and winners of three straight ACC titles, and the Tigers, 10-3 in 2014, both lost significant personnel to the NFL draft.
With senior quarterback Jacoby Brissett leading the offense and eight starters back on an improved defense, the door is open for the Wolfpack to make a move.
In case the players need a reminder, the team has adopted “Raise the Bar” as its motto. Rose, and many other players, have the words on rubber wrist bands in case they forget during summer workouts.
“This year, we’re really trying to get that 10th win, and we want to contend for the ACC championship,” said Rose, 6-3, 270, who led the team with 14 tackles for loss last season.
N.C. State hasn’t won the ACC title since 1979, when there were only seven teams in the conference.
Only one team, when Philip Rivers was a junior in 2002 (11-3), has posted a double-digit win total in 123 seasons of N.C. State football.
Recent versions, with NFL quarterbacks in Russell Wilson and Mike Glennon, set similar goals but fell short.
This N.C. State team can be different, Rose said, if it can play the way it did at the end of the 2014 season –winning four of its last five games – for the entire 2015 season.
The Wolfpack will have to replace some key parts, especially on both lines and on special teams, but Rose said there is a value in the winning experience the team picked up at the end of the season.
The defense, in particular, made a marked improvement as the season progressed. The Wolfpack struggled to stop the run and to pressure the quarterback during the first half of the 2014 season.
In the first six games against Bowl Subdivision opponents, N.C. State allowed 202.3 rushing yards per game and had nine sacks. In the last six games against FBS opponents, N.C. State allowed 142.1 rushing yards and doubled its sack total (18).
There was a change in defensive philosophy after a 30-14 home loss to Boston College on Oct. 11. Instead of primarily using a base defense, with four pass rushers, N.C. State started blitzing more and creating more pressure.
“The blitzes helped keep people honest,” Rose said. “It’s no different than a change-up in baseball.”
There’s no reason to change their defensive approach, even with three new starters up front. And the offense, Rose said, will be fine as “Jacoby just keeps being Jacoby.”
Brissett threw for 2,606 yards last season and ran for 529 more. More important, the Florida transfer only threw five interceptions, compared with the 15 by N.C. State starters in 2013.
Brissett will be helped by a strong running game with the return of senior Shadrach Thornton (907 rushing yards) and the versatile Matt Dayes (894 combined rushing and receiving yards). There are enough positives there for Rose to see an opportunity to defy expectations again.
“Look, Florida State is going to be a good team,” Rose said. “They have good athletes and good coaches. Clemson’s the same way. But I think that any Saturday – I’ve been on teams that beat Florida State, beat Clemson – anything can happen, and we can do it.”
ACC preview schedule
May 31: No. 1 Florida State
June 7: No. 2 Clemson
June 14: No. 3 N.C. State
June 21: No. 4 Louisville
June 28: No. 5 Boston College
July 5: No. 6 Syracuse
July 12: No. 7 Wake Forest
July 19: No. 1 Virginia Tech
July 26: No. 2 Georgia Tech
Aug. 2: No. 3 UNC
Aug. 9: No. 4 Duke
Aug. 16: No. 5 Pitt
Aug. 23: No. 6 Miami
Aug. 30: No. 7 Virginia
N.C. State at a glance
2014: 8-5 overall (3-5 ACC)
Coach: Dave Doeren (11-14, third year at N.C. State)
Returning starters: Offense (6), Defense (8), Special teams (0)
▪ Offensive coordinator Matt Canada likes choices and he has a several at running back. He has a power runner in senior Shadrach Thornton (907 yards), and junior Matt Dayes or sophomore Jaylen Samuels have the potential to lead the team in catches and/or receiving yards. Then there's freshmen Reggie Gallaspy, Johnny Frasier and Nyheim Hines.
That's just at running back. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett ran for 325 yards in the last four games. The Wolfpack averaged 204.5 yards per game, its most productive season since 1992, and that number should go up again.
▪ All five starters return in the secondary, led by senior safety Hakim Jones (team-best 80 tackles). Junior nickel Dravious Wright improved as the season went along, as did sophomore safety Josh Jones, and both should be better with more experience in 2015.
▪ Both offensive tackles need to be replaced. Given all the problems N.C. State has had up front over the past dozen years, that's not a small task.
Redshirt freshman Tyler Jones and senior Alex Barr emerged from the spring as the likely replacements for Rob Crisp and Tyson Chandler but how quickly they can get up to speed will be a major concern during training camp and as the season starts.
▪ There are questions at receiver after another season of too many drops and the transfer of Bo Hines (team-best 45 catches, 616 yards) to Yale.
Dayes, Samuels or maybe Nyheim Hines might be Brissett's top options in the passing game but a deep-threat needs to emerge to take some of the pressure off the running game.
▪ Best-case scenario: The defense picks up where it left off, the key new parts on the offensive line merge with the old and Brissett leads them to a split with Clemson and FSU and its first Atlantic Division title.
▪ Worst-case scenario: The defense reverts to early 2014 form, the offense stalls and the special teams are a mess with a freshman kicker and freshman punter. South Alabama bites them in late September, the division road woes continue and a home loss to UNC keeps them out of a bowl.
▪ Bottom line: There's a chance here for N.C. State to make a move. A division title might be down the road for Doeren but there are 10 wins available (including the bowl), if Brissett can be more consistent and the defense can take the next step.
Newcomer to watch
Nyheim Hines, RB/WR
The freshman from Garner gives the Wolfpack offense a needed shot of speed. He won't be a traditional receiver, like Bo Hines, but he can make up for some of Yale transfer's lost catches.
Like elusive receiver Rashard Smith during an injury-truncated 2013 season, Hines will be used as a runner out of the slot and to catch passes.
Sept. 5 Troy
Sept. 12 Eastern Kentucky
Sept. 19 at Old Dominion
Sept. 26 at South Alabama
Oct. 3 Louisville
Oct. 9 at Virginia Tech
Oct. 17 OPEN
Oct. 24 at Wake Forest
Oct. 31 Clemson
Nov. 7 at Boston College
Nov. 14 at Florida State
Nov. 21 Syracuse
Nov. 28 UNC
So how does a Power 5 team end up going to Mobile, Ala. and Norfolk, Va. in the same year? The South Alabama contract was two-for-one (N.C. State beat the Jaguars in Raleigh in 2011 and '12) and the ODU series was a home-and-home (the Wolfpack beat the Monarchs in Raleigh last year).
It's less than an interesting schedule outside the ACC, to say the least, but as long as the ACC division alignment remains the same, N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow makes no apologies for seeking potential wins where she can.
The difference between 8-5 and improvement will likely be determined by how the Wolfpack does against Louisville, Boston College and Wake Forest.
Louisville still has talent but lost 10 players in the NFL draft, so the Cardinals are vulnerable, especially in Raleigh.
But N.C. State has never won an ACC game at Boston College (0-5) and it hasn't won at Wake Forest since 2001.