It was laid bare for all to see. NC State has made some improvements, but there is still much work to do.
For the Wolfpack there was a sad symmetry to the loss to Mississippi State in the Belk Bowl Wednesday, particularly as it pertains to the outgoing seniors. As freshmen, many of them began their careers in the lackluster defeat to Tennessee in Atlanta while ending the 2012 season dropping the Music City Bowl to Vanderbilt in Nashville. NC State still has not defeated a team from the SEC in this century.
Mississippi State is similar to the Vanderbilt team of four seasons ago in that the Bulldogs are a quality SEC team but not considered among the elite of the conference. Both teams in fact were projected to finish among the bottom. However, that view would likely be through the prism of someone who simply follows the SEC or Top 25 college football as a whole. Each of them, along with the Tennessee squad that was 1-7 in conference play in 2012, would likely have fared well in the ACC.
In the context of where NC State is and where the Wolfpack hopes to go, the bowl losses to bookend the careers of the outgoing seniors is a stark reminder that there is level of play that the program has not reached.
NC State hoped to raise the bar this season. Did the Wolfpack do so? It depends both on perception and timetable set forth.
The Pack did finally get wins at Wake Forest and Boston College. No team in the Atlantic Division will ever amount to anything of significance in the conference or nationally if it consistently loses in Winston-Salem and Chestnut Hill, especially when the schedule has those two games coming in the same season. In that regard, there was progress.
Fans of NC State often lament the comparisons to North Carolina and Duke due to the Atlantic Division schedule requiring annual matchups with Clemson and Florida State. Whether it is in dealing with high school kids or simply those on the message boards, Tar Heel and Blue Devil supporters along with those working on the recruiting trail for the two schools will use their recent appearances in the ACC Championship Game as leverage against NC State.
What Duke did in 2013 and what North Carolina accomplished this past season was run the table, or at least have a great deal of success, in the ‘winnable’ games. The Wolfpack had three games that could have potentially won without it being considered a major upset (Louisville, at Virginia Tech and North Carolina) and victories in some of them perhaps could have expedited the process of building the program. NC State struck out and lost all of them.
Wins over the Cardinals and Hokies would have meant the team would have taken a 7-0 record against Clemson, which almost certainly would have brought the type of national exposure that both the team and the fans crave. It is difficult to not wonder what could have been but the focus now has to be on opportunities ahead and not the chances that were lost.
Another area where NC State must raise the bar is its performance at home in conference play. Carter-Finley Stadium is often described as a magical place by current and former players alike. It is certainly a wonderful venue to watch football and the Wolfpack has conjured up some special moments there over the years.
With the Wolfpack suffering 10 losses in its last 12 ACC games at home, it has become much easier for the opposition to win in Raleigh. At the minimum, fixing the problem of consistently losing at Carter-Finley Stadium should be of tantamount importance to NC State as winning at Wake Forest and Boston College was prior to this past season.
Ultimately, Dave Doeren and his staff will have to make brutally honest assessments of where the program is, both in relation to where it should be now and where it needs to be in the future. On the bright side for NC State, Doeren does seem to have a strong self-awareness and does not delude himself into thinking things are better or worse than they really are.
The NC State fanbase will also need to have some pragmatism in remembering that while the seven and eight-win seasons have seemingly gone on forever, Doeren has only been with the Wolfpack for three seasons. The good news is there are few schools that have supporters as devoted as NC State does.
If and when NC State sorts its issues with home games and with winning a majority of the contests where the Wolfpack is favored or even a slight underdog, there is then still the huge matter of closing the large gap between them and the top dogs in the Atlantic, Clemson and Florida State, along with Louisville to a lesser extent.
It is a process and however far NC State did travel this season, there is still many miles to go. Would the Wolfpack have the type of season that North Carolina had if they were in the Coastal? In all honesty, probably not. Every game NC State has played against solid competition since its stirring come-from-behind win over Florida State at home in 2012 has ended in defeat, sans the bowl victory over Central Florida last season.
The loss to Mississippi State shows that NC State is at a similar place as it was in 2012. It is a program not yet on par with compatiable or lesser teams in the SEC and it also has not separated itself from the lump of mediocre ACC schools in football, which currently is all of them excluding Clemson and Florida State.
That is not worth of jumping off a bridge over. In three years from now will the Wolfpack be in the same spot? If so, then it would be a bigger problem.
Getting above the status quo is going to take a massive amount of work. Everyone involved with NC State believes it can and will be done one day. The grind to get there has to continue. Honest assessments must be made.