North Carolina State and head coach Dave Doeren have taken some heat after losing the first two conference games, taking Doeren’s overall ACC record to a miserable 3-15 in two-plus seasons at the helm in Raleigh.
After racing out to a 4-0 start, the Wolfpack missed out on opportunities to prove it was for real in back-to-back-losses to Louisville and Virginia Tech, and instead are dealing with criticism for beating up on a weak non-conference schedule which could allow the Wolfpack to back into bowl berth for the second straight season after going just 3-9 and 0-8 in the ACC during Doeren’s first year at NC State back in 2013.
It’s easy to understand the frustration from fans of the Wolfpack and their rivals. Ultimately, you are judged by your ability to compete in your conference and Doeren built a reputation by dominating the MAC as head coach at Northern Illinois. But he’s also following a specific blueprint for rebuilding at North Carolina State. It’s one that worked for his boss Mark Mangino when Doeren was an assistant at Kansas and the same plan perfected by Mangino’s old boss at Kansas State, Bill Snyder.
Schedule cupcakes early and make going to bowl games routine then step up the non-conference schedule when you’ve assembled the talent to compete with the big boys.
So while it can certainly be maddening to see the Wolfpack flounder in an ACC that lacks dominant programs outside of Florida State and Clemson, especially with a talent like Jacoby Brissett at quarterback, it’s all part of the long-term rebuilding process.
Last season the Wolfpack beat Georgia Southern, Old Dominion, South Florida and Presbyterian in the first four weeks before going on a four-game losing streak. But the Pack were also able to win three of four down the stretch against Wake Forest, Syracuse and rival North Carolina to earn a spot in the St. Petersburg Bowl.
This season looks like a similar pattern with NC State taking care of Troy, Eastern Kentucky, ODU and South Alabama before ACC play. Even though it played two of those games on the road, the lack of a Power 5 conference opponent in notable, particularly after the poor start in the league.
But NC State has a date with offensively challenged Wake Forest coming up on Oct. 24 and games against Boston College, Syracuse and UNC left on the schedule. The Pack should be able to win at least two of those and get back to the postseason for a second straight season.
And that’s the key. Posting winning records and getting to bowl games helps recruiting, and as good as Brissett is, there’s not an overwhelming amount of talent around him, especially with running back Shadrach Thornton off the team.
When Doeren was an assistant at Kansas, the Jayhawks followed a 2-10 season in the staff’s first year with a trip to the Tangerine Bowl in 2003, where it coincidently met NC State. That year the Jayhawks beat UNLV, Wyoming and Jacksonville State in the non-conference and followed it up with a rivalry win against Missouri. That resparked interest in the program and set KU up for its most successful period since the 1960s, peaking with a trip to the Orange Bowl and a No. 7 finish in the AP poll following the 2007 season.
Doeren followed the blueprint perfectly last season with the four-nonconference wins and by beating North Carolina. That should be enough to keep State fans invested for the time being, which is key because it’s not as easy a rebuilding job in Raleigh was one might think, especially with Duke winning and now pulling many of the type of in-state recruits who used to look at the Wolfpack and Tar Heels as the best ACC option close to home.
So while local papers and talk radio might make an issue of Doeren’s ACC record and NC State fans might find themselves on the defensive, at this point those fans should be happy to get fat on cupcakes.
The real meal comes later.