CLEMSON - For a moment, relax. This one's in the bag . . . probably.
Besides an FCS opponent and an idle Saturday in consecutive weeks, September will be a brutal stretch for Clemson football. Trips to Georgia and Florida State and hosting North Carolina constitute three early matchups against teams who could all be ranked in the top 20 to open 2014.
That's not going to be the case with North Carolina State, which was hoping for a better debut season from first-year head man Dave Doeren. After compiling a 23-4 mark at Northern Illinois, he bolted for the Wolfpack before NIU's Orange Bowl appearance. Doeren's reward for the head-start on the new gig? Well, he's still awaiting his first ACC victory, even though 2013 included cracks at Wake Forest and vs. Syracuse at home.
His wait is probably going to linger awhile. N.C. State opens with its four non-conference opponents (none of note), before hosting Florida State (eek!) and traveling to Clemson (ooh, boy.) At this point, merely making a bowl game counts as baby-steps progress in Raleigh.
Figure on Doeren beating an ACC opponent this year. Just don't bet your bottom dollar on when.
Game 5: North Carolina State at No. 22* Clemson, Oct. 4, time and TV TBD
N.C. State coach: Dave Doeren (3-9, 2nd season)
Returning starters: 12 (six offense, six defense)
2013 record: 3-9, 0-8 ACC; last ACC Coastal
Scoring offense: 22.8 points per game (98th in FBS)
Scoring defense: 30.2 points allowed (84th)
Series: Clemson leads 52-28-1, including 23-11 in Clemson
Last meeting: Clemson 26-14 in Raleigh (Sept. 19, 2013)
Golden Nugget line: Clemson by 23
Opposing beat writer to follow: @jwgiglio
Three things to know about North Carolina State
1. Room for improvement: There really is no place to go but up. Where do we begin with N.C. State's dreadful 2013? The Wolfpack was one of two ACC teams to get outscored by more than a touchdown per game on average, and Virginia at least has decent recruits coming in (plus, the Hoos' Coastal slate is more forgiving than N.C. State's Atlantic foes.) The Wolfpack scored between 10 and 21 points in every ACC game; meanwhile, it never yielded fewer than 24 points in conference play. Really, their best shot of the season came at Clemson, when the Wolfpack was 2-0 (wins over Louisiana Tech and Richmond counted for something) and enjoyed a Thursday night national spotlight against a visiting top-5 team. And even then, a shaky performance by the visiting Tigers was still good for a 12-point triumph.
2. Brissett to the rescue: You can break down the ACC's hierarchy this way: in 2013, there were two teams with elite quarterback play (Florida State, Clemson), two with very good passing (UNC, Miami), four with a somewhat capable guy (Duke/Pitt/BC/Maryland) and six who, well, need to find a quarterback. N.C. State might have done that by reeling in Jacoby Brissett, who passed for 365 yards in the Wolfpack's spring game. Brissett will capture headlines mainly because he was a four-star recruit in the spring of 2011, but for two years at Florida (41-for-74, 455 yards, 3 TD, 4 INT) he was a forgettable backup to the not-so-immortal Jeff Driskel, which led him to transfer in the first place.
3. Nickel and dime: The Wolfpack employs a 4-2-5 alignment on defense, interesting considering Doeren's roots in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten and Big XII. Look for three-safety sets, which could include some of the program's younger talent. The Wolfpack seem a little more set up front on the defensive line than on the back end, which helps considering N.C. State was stronger against the pass than the run in 2013. As I wrote about yesterday in the North Carolina preview, the whole defense is just kind of mediocre - nondescript, even.
Week before: North Carolina
Next week: Louisville
On the horizon: @Georgia Tech, South Carolina