Yes, yes, yes, everyone knows the situation. If Clemson wins out, the fifth-ranked Tigers will be in the College Football Playoff. No. 2 LSU plays No. 3 Alabama this week, and top-ranked Ohio State hosts No. 4 Penn State on Nov. 23. In both cases, the loser will undoubtedly fall behind Clemson should the Tigers remain unbeaten.
But the fact that the defending national champion, which started the season at No. 1 in both major polls and has won its nine games by an average score of 44–12, has fallen out of the top four is a joke to Clemson fans. There is one way to have the last laugh, though, and that is to win the whole thing once again.
Beating NC State in Raleigh this weekend is a necessary step on that quest. The Wolfpack have lost four of their last six games, and their only win over a Power 5 team this season was a sluggish 16-10 victory against 3-6 Syracuse. Needless to say, the Pack will have to elevate their game with an angry bunch of Tigers coming to town on Saturday.
Clemson at NC State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Clemson -32
When Clemson Has the Ball
Since the scare at North Carolina, Clemson has responded by scoring 45 points in two games and 59 in the other two. The biggest reason for the recent offensive surge has been the running of Travis Etienne. In his first five games, the junior from Jennings, La., had 462 rushing yards, and that included 205 in the opener against Georgia Tech. But in the last four weeks, he has gone for 640 yards on just 56 carries — a clip of 11.4 yards per carry.
If you remove the Boston College game, NC State has done a fine job against the run, giving up just 75 rushing yards per game. Of course, the Boston College game did happen. Led by AJ Dillon and David Bailey, the Eagles pounded out 429 yards on the ground. If Etienne has the openings that the Boston College backs had, Clemson will score as many points as it wants in this game.
The Wolfpack pass defense has not been very good this season. The stats will tell you that they are middle of the ACC pack in that department, but considering that Boston College didn’t have to throw and Western Carolina can’t, the numbers aren’t very impressive. So it wouldn’t be a shock to see Clemson come out winging it around, with Trevor Lawrence playing pitch and catch with his plethora of receivers. When the Tigers get tired of doing that, then they’ll probably let Etienne run a bit.
When NC State Has the Ball
Quarterback play for the Wolfpack has been absolutely atrocious this year. Three starters have combined to complete just 53 percent of their throws with 10 touchdowns and six interceptions. The latest to get a try was Devin Leary, and he remains on top of the depth chart going into this week. The redshirt freshman was 17-of-45 against Wake Forest for 149 yards with one touchdown against two interceptions.
And now he gets to face the Clemson defense. Best of luck. The Tigers have given up just 134 passing yards per game and have 30 sacks on the year. Seven Tigers have at least one interception, and safety Tanner Muse leads the team with three. With a young quarterback facing what will be intense pressure, the Tigers' numbers could improve.
Leary can’t expect to get a whole lot of help from the running game, either. NC State is averaging 150 rushing yards per game on the season, but in the last four, it’s dipped to 91 yards a contest. Running back Ricky Person has missed the past three games, which hasn’t helped, but the increased competition level has probably been a bigger factor. That competition level goes up considerably this week, as the Tigers allow just 113 yards per game on the ground.
We all know what’s going to happen. Clemson is coming in upset at being ranked No. 5 and will be out to prove to the selection committee why that spot is too low. The Wolfpack have been in a funk and are coming off games in which they gave up 45 points to Boston College and 44 to Wake Forest. The NC State offense hasn’t been able to run the ball effectively, and the quarterback position is a mess. For some strange reason, this is the Homecoming game for NC State. Hopefully, the returning alums will have fun around campus, because the game will not be pretty.
Prediction: Clemson 54, NC State 7
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.