The NC State football team enters the 2016 season with a challenging proposition: improve once again despite losing its top quarterback, offensive lineman, defensive lineman, and defensive back from last year’s team. That, in and of itself, will be tough for the Wolfpack. When factoring in the difficulty of NC State’s 2016 schedule, a tough task becomes significantly tougher.
In 2015, the Wolfpack offense finished the season as the No. 32 offense in the country according to S&P+. However, they will have to keep it going without two-year starting QB Jacoby Brissett, who emerged as the spark plug of the NCSU offense. The Pack will likely lean on its rushing attack, No. 6 in the country a year ago, which returns leading rusher Matthew Dayes, who had 865 yards on the ground and 12 rushing touchdowns last year. Additionally, NC State will be installing a new offensive coordinator, Eli Drinkwitz, previously the offensive coordinator at Boise State.
Defensively, NCSU will look to improve on a defense which was ranked the 45th-best in the country in 2015. The Wolfpack can create its biggest positive trend in the secondary which returns all but two contributors from a somewhat weak unit that finished 2015 No. 82 in passing defense.
In 2015, Florida State fell behind early to NC State at home before charging back and soundly defeating the Wolfpack behind two-touchdown performances from running back Dalvin Cook and wideout Kermit Whitfield. This year, the Seminoles will travel to Raleigh in early November, the 5th to be exact, in the middle of NCSU’s toughest stretch of the season. Leading up to the showdown with FSU, the Wolfpack has matchups with Notre Dame, Clemson, and Louisville in consecutive weeks with only a home game against Boston College as a brief reprieve before the Seminoles come to town.
SB Nation’s Bill Connelly released his NC State preview on Wednesday. The whole thing is definitely worth reading but here are a few excerpts from Connelly’s thorough preview:
If you're going to get rid of a good coordinator, you better replace him with a great one.
Doeren replaced Canada with a branch of the Gus Malzahn tree. Eli Drinkwitz was Malzahn's coordinator at Springdale (Ark.) High, his quality control assistant at Auburn in 2010-11, and his running backs coach at Arkansas State in 2012. When Malzahn moved back to Auburn, Drinkwitz stayed on as Bryan Harsin's offensive co-coordinator at ASU, then followed Harsin to Boise State.
With Drinkwitz as tight ends coach, BSU ranked 13th in Off. S&P+ in 2014. But as he moved up to the OC chair in 2015, he had to deal with a green backfield (freshman quarterback, sophomore running back) and a shuffled offensive line, and the offense sank to 52nd.
Drinkwitz's pedigree is obvious, but he doesn't have much of a track record just yet. Doeren is taking one hell of a leap of faith here.
The 2015 Drinkwitz offense played at one of the nation's fastest tempos and took a pass-first approach. That's a scary proposition when combined with a new starting quarterback, but after Jalan McClendon and Jakobi Meyers battled for the starting role in spring ball, Drinkwitz brought in a ringer: Ryan Finley, a BSU graduate transfer who began 2015 as the starter before getting hurt.
This is a "put up or shut up" kind of year. The Wolfpack have definitely improved but don't have any big wins to show for it, and now they face life with a new quarterback and an increasingly tricky schedule. If they don't start beating decent teams soon, they'll be looking for a new coach. Doeren has not yet cleared the bar set by O'Brien.
That said, I would be surprised if State didn't claim a couple of decent victims. The run defense should be strong, the addition of Ryan Finley to the QB race assures a certain baseline level of quality, and there is still diversity and athleticism in the skill positions.