Choosing North Carolina State as a sleeper team that could surprise in the 2017 college football season would seem to make a lot of sense for a number of reasons.
The Wolfpack were a field goal away from beating Clemson and lost by four to Florida State last year. They have one of the nation's best defensive lines, featuring seniors Bradley Chubb, B.J. Hill, Justin Jones and Kentavius Street, plus junior Darian Roseboro. They return nine of the top 13 tacklers from a defense that ranked a solid 29th in yards per play allowed. And while they lose thousand-yard rusher Matthew Dayes, they return nine starters on offense, including a solid quarterback in Ryan Finley (3,059 yards, 18 TDs as a Boise State transfer), all-purpose tight end/H-back Jaylen Samuels and a veteran offensive line. They look like a fairly complete team, one that showed it could give powerhouses all they could handle a year ago and will be even better this fall.
While the Wolfpack aren't ranked in the preseason coaches poll, for the first time in a while, there is some preseason buzz around N.C. State as a dangerous team poised for a breakthrough. There is, however, a glaring problem: The Wolfpack unfortunately reside in the ACC Atlantic, where their ceiling is severely limited, particularly given the state of the Atlantic right now.
Last summer, when Louisville began to get some traction with hope that Lamar Jackson would become a star, we wrote about the similar plight of the Cardinals being stuck in the same division as Florida State and Clemson. It was nearly totally wrong. Jackson ended up having a bigger season than anyone could have imagined, and the Cardinals went 7-1 in the ACC, with a 43-point win over Florida State. Yet they still finished only 21st in the AP poll, while Clemson won the national title and Florida State ended up in the top 10. Divisional power can be cyclical -- after all, Wake Forest won the ACC Atlantic in 2006, and Boston College won the next two years -- but with Jimbo Fisher at Florida State and Dabo Swinney at Clemson, it's hard to navigate past both national powers in any given season.
So if that was and still is a plight for Louisville, what do we call the misfortune that N.C. State faces? Not only do Clemson and Florida State stand in the way of a Wolfpack breakthrough, but Louisville, with the returning Heisman Trophy winner, is also on sturdier ground.
Even if circumstances align perfectly for N.C. State -- and this is the best the Wolfpack have looked in a preseason in a while -- there's still an overall talent and depth gap between them and the top of the ACC. Just look at the average recruiting rankings in the conference over the past five years, according to the 247Sports composite rankings:
Florida State is in an exclusive club that includes teams like Alabama, Ohio State, USC and LSU, in terms of national recruiting prowess. Clemson has recruited at a high enough level to compete for national titles. Miami, as always, is a potential giant. Beyond those three, there's a recruiting drop-off in the ACC, and N.C. State resides in the middle of the pack with an average ranking of 45.2 in five years, with none of those classes finishing in the top 30.
For the most part, N.C. State's records have proven those recruiting rankings correct. Life is much tougher for the Wolfpack in the Atlantic because of how top-heavy the division is, but if they were in the Coastal, where they'd have a much better chance of finishing at the top in 2017, they'd actually be only the fifth-best recruiter in that division.
Those recruiting rankings don't tell the whole story, of course, as the Wolfpack have hit on some underrated players like Chubb, a three-star recruit who has blossomed into an All-America NFL prospect. Still, most of N.C. State's position units are somewhere in the middle of the ACC, and the defensive line happens to be the strength of the team in a season in which Clemson, Florida State and Miami also own star-studded defensive lines. Rising to the top at this moment in ACC history, in the Atlantic Division, is as difficult as ever for a team like N.C. State.
It's a program that's never had a team that finished in the AP top 10 at the end of a season, and it's a program where national preseason attention is rare, too. As shown on Sports Reference, 2003 remains the only time in the past 23 seasons that the Wolfpack have opened a season ranked in the AP top 25, and 2002 and '10 marked the only two times in the past 22 in which they have finished a season ranked.
With seniors like Samuels, guard Tony Adams and that fantastic starting defensive line, this is their best chance to break those trends under head coach Dave Doeren, who is 25-26 overall with a 9-23 conference record in four years. Because of the missed field goal that cost the Wolfpack a win over Clemson last year, Doeren still owns just two wins over Power Five conference teams that finished with winning records: Wake Forest and North Carolina last year, which allowed them to go to the Independence Bowl. Unfortunately, the close calls against Clemson and FSU in 2016 couldn't help but be overshadowed by losses to East Carolina and Boston College. The 2017 slate won't make things any easier, as the schedule includes nonconference games vs. South Carolina and at Notre Dame -- in 2013-15, N.C. State played zero Power Five teams in regular-season nonconference play -- plus the trio of Atlantic showdowns.
If the Doeren era continues to feature forgettable results, the strength of the Atlantic Division won't be a viable excuse. College football just doesn't work that way. Sometimes, bad timing and bad luck can't help but stand in the way. A decade ago, Wake Forest found the right combination of players to win the division just as Florida State was mired in mediocrity and Clemson continued to be a sleeping giant rather than an actual giant. Now, Doeren's pivotal fifth season occurs at a time when Clemson and Florida State are at the height of their powers, two of the past four national champions, and Louisville has emerged a stronger program, too.
Place N.C. State in this year's ACC Coastal or Big Ten West, and a conference title game appearance wouldn't be shocking. But while optimism should be relatively high with one of the nation's most experienced rosters, the competition in the Wolfpack's actual home, the ACC Atlantic, is likely to provide a reality check, capping the potential of an otherwise enticing team that's more likely to play the role of conference title spoiler for someone else rather than conference title sleeper.