Courtesy of gopack.com:
Sept. 4: Virginia Tech, 7:15pm (ESPN2)
Sept. 17: Eastern Kentucky
Sept. 24: North Carolina
Oct. 6: (Thurs) @ Georgia Tech (ESPN)
Oct. 13: (Thurs) Clemson (ESPN)
Oct. 22: @ Wake Forest
Oct. 29: Southern Mississippi (Homecoming)
Nov. 5: @ Florida State
Nov. 12: @ Boston College
Nov. 19: Middle Tennesse State 1pm
Nov. 26: Maryland
First, the obvious question – is the out-of-conference schedule tough enough? In my view, it’s on the low side of acceptable, but still acceptable. Before Central Florida backed out (to be replaced by Southern Miss), it was an awful schedule. Now, it comes close to meeting my criteria – one easy win (Eastern Kentucky), one mildly challenging game that should still be a win (Temple), one challenging game against a program of equal or greater stature (Southern Miss). In my view, Temple and Southern Miss each BARELY qualify for their slotted category, but they do qualify. Don’t sleep on Southern Miss – they could easily trip up the Pack if it gets off to a fast start.
That said, all of the ingredients are in place for a great start, if NC State can seize the opportunities the schedule presents. September could be a great month, providing 4 wins AND challenges that help the team improve its level of play. Getting Virginia Tech for the first game is a perfect opportunity to knock off the Hokies. It will be the first game for Marcus (“old enough to bleed, old enough to breed”) Vick as the Hokies’ QB, and the Pack’s defense should be able to confuse him. Plus, we know that State’s linebackers have enough speed to shadow him on keepers and scrambles. Give Frank Beamer alot of credit – he went 6-0 in ACC play after losing to State last year, mostly by improving his team’s play from week to week. That said, the Hokies didn’t blow anyone away other than Duke or Maryland – both in Blacksburg – and very easily could have lost to Wake, Georgia Tech, and UNC. The Hokies will be good in 2005, but very, very beatable – especially early in the season. The simple fact that a lousy 2004 NC State squad won in Blacksburg with middle school-caliber QB play should be enough for even the most jaded pessimist to understand why NC State could easily win this game.
I love the way the rest of September unfolds. State travels to Philadelphia to play lousy Temple next. Inevitably, things go wrong in the first road contest of the season. But Temple is perfect for that – just tough enough to challenge NC State so it can improve, but too weak to actually win the game. After 8 quarters of legitimate competition, the Pack can work out more adjustments in throttling hapless 1-AA Eastern Kentucky the following week. Then, in comes UNC. Do the simple analysis – UNC had its best season since Julius Peppers in 2004, and State clearly had its worst team since Amato arrived – and the Wolfpack STILL should have won in Chapel Hill. State will be better in 2005 (and out for blood), and UNC will be worse. Amato won’t decline a 4th and 3 to set up 3rd and 8 again, and the Pack will roll.
So, if you boldly assume a win against VT (as I do), that’s 4-0 entering October. There are no easy wins in October, but no sure losses either. This is the month where Amato and staff need to earn their paychecks the most. First, we battle dual curses – Georgia Tech and their defensive coordinator, John Tenuda. Amato hasn’t beaten Tech since the Norm Chow-orchestrated overtime win in Year One, and he’s NEVER beaten Tenuda. There is no logical reason why we CAN’T beat Georgia Tech, we just HAVEN’T. Getting 12 days to prepare for the game also helps. If Amato is a great coach, he needs to seize the momentum of a fast start with a confident team and win this game. But with Tech returning 10 starters on defense, I wouldn’t count on this one. Fortunately, Clemson offers a nice opportunity to bounce back at home on a Thursday night. I’m not impressed by Clemson’s talent or coaching, and last year’s poor sqaud should have beaten the Tiggers in Death Valley, and would have, if not for 50-60 turnovers by Jay Davis (I lost count). Now, we’re 5-1 heading into Winston-Salem, for a game that could go either way. This game would terrify me at 6-0, but even at 5-1, the possibility for a letdown is there against the always-dangerous and well-coached Deacons. I will trust that a vastly improved Wolfpack defense will prevent a repeat of 2003, and predict the Pack to win a nailbiter. Southern Miss is another challenging game. They are another superbly coached squad, maybe even more so than Wake. Their “anybody, any place, any time” philosophy means they won’t be at all intimidated by an energized Carter-Finley stadium. The Wolfpack can’t afford to look past Southern Miss to upcoming clashes with BC and Florida State.
The Wolfpack should enter November at either 6-2 or 7-1. The game with Florida State could very easily decide who will represent the division in the ACC title game. Remember, even with 2 conference losses, the Pack could earn that berth if it wins the tiebreaker with the ‘Noles. Winning in Tallahassee is unlikely, but possible. Being in the thick of the division title race should energize and focus the Pack for the task. However the FSU game turns out, the trip to Chestnut Hill the following week will be a cold and dangerous one. The Pack will either be coming off a big win and in the drivers’ seat for the division title, or a crushing loss and virtual elimination from the ACC race (FSU won’t lose 3 ACC games if NC State doesn’t account for one of those losses). Both scenarios make me nervous. The Eagles do have to replace their excellent QB, and hopefully the Pack won’t let their placekicker BREAK TACKLES and run for a 23-yard touchdown like our baby blue brethren did in the Tire Bowl. Still, this game is also too close to call. Finally, we end the season at home against Maryland. I expect Maryland to be better in 2005, but “how much better” is the real question. After gut wrenching defeats snatched from the jaws of victory in 2001 and 2003, I am going to hold out hope that Amato goes for the jugular this time if we get a solid lead. Ending the “Turtle Curse” with a win in College Park last year should help our mental state, as we finally get a win in a must-win situation.
I assume the Pack will lose to Georgia Tech and one or two out of Southern Miss, Florida State, and Boston College. Even 8-3 might be enough to make the ACC title game (if 2 losses are to BC and Southern Miss), which would be a giant leap forward for our program. Now, let me issue a word of caution – my hopeful analysis assumes several things. First, we MUST bring in a very good-to-great offensive coordinator (if we get a GREAT one, I see 9-2) – one that Amato trusts to leave alone and let him do his job. Secondly, the QB play must be dramatically better, which the offensive coordinator will impact greatly (i.e., by designing an offense that either Davis or Stone can run competently). Third, Amato MUST have learned his lessons from the last two subpar seasons. He must not fall into the trap of easy excuses, such as injuries or bad luck. Pride must take a back seat to reflection. Otherwise, a trip to Boise might be in the cards – or another trip to nowhere.
It CAN happen, folks. With the talent in the locker room and the commitment we have all made to building the football program, EVERYONE should EXPECT to see a much better football product in 2005.