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Syracuse football 2021 opponent preview: N.C. State Wolfpack

“NC State’s mascot... (Mr.) Wuf.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 21 NC State at Georgia Tech Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Syracuse Orange football season kicks off in just two months, as you may or may not have already noticed. “Get to Know” pieces are moving at a brisk pace, position group previews have begun, and preseason magazine have resumed their annual (2018 aside) shade campaign toward the state of SU football — even if it’s probably warranted this time, following last year’s 1-10 campaign.

As is the case every year, the upcoming season also means we’re continuing our early look at all 12 of Syracuse’s upcoming opponents. Last week, it was a Louisville team looking to bounce back from its own disappointing season. This time, our focus is on the:

N.C. State Wolfpack

School: North Carolina State University

Mascot: Wolfpack

#BRAND Slogan(s): #1Pack1Goal

Alternate #BRAND Slogan Suggestions: “No, WE’RE Russell Wilson’s Alma Mater” OR “OUR STATE... except when ECU beats us”

Recommended Blog: Backing the Pack

Conference: ACC

History vs. Syracuse: Things have been pretty good for NC State in this series, which dates back to 1972. The Pack won the first six games before a 24-10 victory by Syracuse in 2013 broke up the streak. State followed that up with another four in a row before SU hung 51 on them at the Dome in 2018. ‘Cuse has lost the last two games, however, in absolutely debilitating fashion. You don’t want to talk about the 16-10 loss in Raleigh or last year’s fourth down spike, but they do exist.

North Carolina State v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Coach: Dave Doeren, ninth season. Doeren’s a Kansas native who played tight end at Drake before jumping right into coaching at his high school alma mater — a short-lived trip before heading right back to Drake to handle linebackers, then defensive coordinator duties. He spent several years as a grad assistant at USC, then jumped to Montana and was Kansas’s co-defensive coordinator by 2005. Doeren ran Wisconsin’s defense from 2006-10, which earned him the Northern Illinois head coaching job. Going 23-4 in two seasons was enough to get him to NC State.

At State, he’s just 55-46, but has largely found success and brought in talent. The peak of his achievements were back-to-back nine-win seasons in 2017 and 2018 — something that could be seen as either good or bad depending on your perspective on how many games he should’ve won with the talent on those rosters.

2020 Record: (8-4) (7-3)

Recapping Last Season

A 4-8 campaign in 2020 definitely put some pressure on Doeren, but winning eight games last year quieted concerns quickly enough. The Pack eked out a win over Wake Forest in week one, before getting smoked by Virginia Tech nine games later. After three straight wins, they lost two in a row to UNC and Miami, then reeled off four straight victories to wrap up the regular season — including a nail-biter vs. Syracuse that may have ended differently if not for some questionable late decisions by the Orange. State also lost a tight Gator Bowl to Kentucky, 23-21.

NC State’s offense wasn’t necessarily anything special, ranking 74th in the country with 385 yards per game. while scoring 30.3 points per. The run game had its ups and downs, averaging just 122.5 yards per game, but they were a top-40 passing attack. Between Bailey Hockman, Devin Leary and others, the Pack threw for over 3,000 yards and tallied 24 touchdowns through the air. State QBs spread the ball around pretty well too, with six different players catching 20 passes or more. While the team rushing numbers weren’t great, both Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person put in solid individual work averaging at least 4.37 yards per carry.

On the defensive side, State, allowed 415 yards and 29.2 points per game — so largely a middle-of-the-road group, as four different opponents put up at least 40 points on them. However, the Pack were one of the nation’s top teams in terms of getting after opposing QBs, collecting 32 sacks (led by Daniel Joseph with 6.5). They forced just 13 takeaways, so those weren’t a big part of their game. Finishing minus-six in terms of turnover margin means they potentially had some poor luck.

North Carolina State v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

2021 Season Outlook

It’s pretty clear at this point that the 2019 season was a bit of an anomaly, but was last year as well? That’ll be a key question for Doeren and the Wolfpack this fall as they’re up against what should be a tougher schedule in 2021. Along with a tough non-conference road test at Mississippi State in week two, there are difficult home games against Clemson, Louisville and North Carolina. Add on a conference road slate of Boston College, Miami, Florida State and Wake Forest, and a team just as good as last year could wind up falling flat.

Leary returns under center and that’s a good thing given he was the better playmaker. In just four games last year, he completed 60% of his throws for 890 yards and eight touchdowns (just two picks). NC State only loses one of the team’s top five targets from last year (tight end Cary Angeline), and both Knight and Person return as well, so the team is stocked with experienced playmakers. Additionally, four of five starters on the line are back as well. Many of the things that worked well for the Pack offense seem poised to work again in 2021.

Defensively, there’s plenty of experience returning plus the team adds Marshall safety transfer Derek Pitts (42 tackles, 1.5 TFLs last year) and Florida State safety Cyrus Fagan (41 tackles, one INT in 2019). Staggeringly, 13 of the top 15 (and the top 12) tacklers from last year are all back, and what was a young group last year now has a ton of snaps to inform improvement this time around.

Syracuse Game Date: Saturday, November 20

Location: Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh, N.C.

Odds of Orange Victory: 30%

Very Early Outlook vs. Syracuse

For as much as NC State could’ve (and perhaps should’ve) very easily lost last year’s matchup to the Orange, they didn’t and have what appears to be a team that’s at least as good as 2020 — if not better. With Syracuse traveling to Raleigh (a place they’ve only won once) against this experienced of a group on both sides, it’s hard to see SU coming out of it with a win. A 30% chance of victory may be optimistic, but it’s mostly informed by last year’s close game and Doeren being good for laying an egg every year. No matter how good or bad each respective side has been since SU joined the ACC, these have all been pretty close games — five have come down to single digits and all were decided by 15 points or fewer. It’s reasonable to expect the same here again, win or lose.