Clemson football: Oppo research – NC State returns starters, can they shake underachieving history?

A periodic look at what’s going on with the opponents on the 2022 Clemson football schedule.

NC State Head Coach Dave Doeren celebrated the Wolfpack’s victory over Clemson with a solo cup and cigar. He declared:

“Really proud of them. The curse is broken, NC State fans, finally. Been here nine years and seen some crazy stuff.”

Doeran should be proud of his team’s effort that day. It was only the Wolfpack’s second win against the Tigers in the past 17 seasons.

State returns 17 starters from last season. Nine of those starters come back from the defense that was 18th in scoring defense and 21st in yards allowed in 2021. It is reasonable to expect the Pack defense to challenge for Top 10 in both those categories in 2022. Linebacker Drake Thomas led the Wolfpack in tackles, tackles for a loss, sacks and interceptions in 2021, and was named first-team All-ACC.

The offense returns seven starters from 2021, most notably quarterback Devin Leary, who had 35 touchdown passes in 2021 (10th in the nation) versus only five interceptions.  Emeka Emezie exits, but Thayer Thomas and Devin Carter return at receiver. The projected starter at running back is Jordan Houston, who has played sparingly the past two seasons, but led the team in rushing five times as a true freshman in 2019.  State’s projected skill starters are not green; they’ve logged their fair share of playing time. While the offensive line loses Ikem Ekwonu, the 1st round draft pick of the Carolina Panthers, the other four starters return in 2022. The offense will be very capable.

I have no doubt that NC State will have their heads in the right place when they visit Death Valley in the 5th game of the season to kick off October. Given the strength of the two defenses, we can expect this to be a low-scoring matchup, which I think favors the Tigers. The Pack will have the better quarterback that day, but if Clemson’s run game can keep the ball away from Leary, it allows the Tigers to control the pace of the game and neutralize State’s biggest offensive weapon.

If Leary can lead the Wolfpack to a few early scores, it will give them a sizable advantage. The Clemson offense doesn’t excel in the passing game. If the Tigers must throw the ball to come back against State, Clemson will be in trouble.

With the amount of talent returning for NC State in 2022, they are a trendy pick to win the Atlantic Division. Can the Wolfpack overcome history to achieve at a high level?

While the high of defeating the Tigers last season ‘broke the curse’, the reality is that the week before that victory, the Pack lost to Mississippi State on the road in a non-conference game. The win over Clemson put State in the driver seat in the Atlantic Division, but they promptly lost to Miami and eventual division champ Wake Forest. The most promising State team in years only achieved a 9-3 regular season record, missed out on a division title and lost their opportunity to get to the 10-win mark for the first time since 2002 when their bowl opponent pulled out and the Holiday Bowl was cancelled.

I see parallels for 2022 NC State with the 2021 Oklahoma Sooners. On paper, it looked like the Sooners had a Heisman caliber quarterback while all the other contenders for a national championship were breaking in new signal callers. OU were heavy favorites in their conference and didn’t have intimidating non-conference opponents. They were a trendy pick for the national title. The problem was that they had never gotten over the hump in the playoffs. They had been to the semis four times, and like the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl, they lost all four times. On paper, they had what it took, but when it came time to prove it on the field, they tripped up in multiple ways. By the end of the season the quarterback was in the portal and their coach had left town for a more lucrative offer from another school.

Clemson vs. NC State on October 1, could be the game of the year in the ACC

NC State is obviously in a different tier than Oklahoma – the Pack’s demon is the 10-win mark and a division championship, but their trajectory is the same: if there is a year to get over the hump, this is it. Do they have what it takes mentally to prepare and execute week in, week out? Regardless of whether their opponent is a giant in their conference or a team that is expected to struggle to just get to .500? Will they bring the same energy I expect in Death Valley when they play teams like Louisville and Syracuse on the road? Is there a chance they take a non-conference Group of Five opponent like East Carolina lightly when they open the season, even though the game is on the road and the Pirates are a traditional rival?

Right now, I lean towards Clemson’s run game & defense to win a competitive matchup with the Wolfpack in Death Valley, but I have a healthy amount of respect for their 2022 squad. NC State has the talent to go undefeated, win the division & conference and grab a playoff berth – on paper. They will likely be favored in every game except against Clemson.

Doing it for real on the field is a different beast. I think they will finally leap the 10-win hurdle but grabbing that division title in the last year the Atlantic will exist is probably a bit of a stretch.