The NC State Wolfpack will open their 2018 campaign on Saturday, but not against an ordinary FCS opponent. The Wolfpack will be facing James Madison, who not only stunned East Carolina in their season opener a year ago but finished 14-1 and made it to the FCS national championship game before losing to North Dakota State 17-13.
NC State also is coming off a terrific 2017 season, going 9-4 and finishing second in the ACC Atlantic Division. The Wolfpack will try to improve on that mark as they hope to get off to an excellent start this season.
Saturday's game will be the first-ever meeting between NC State and James Madison.
James Madison at NC State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 1 at 12 p.m. ET
Three Things to Watch
1. NC State's offense
Despite some of the personnel losses NC State will have to overcome this season, most notably the absence of top running back Nyheim Hines and versatile H-back Jaylen Samuels, the one positive is that quarterback Ryan Finley is still on campus. One of the best signal-callers in the nation, Finley threw for 3,514 yards with 17 touchdown passes and just six interceptions in 2017.
Finley has an excellent chance of actually improving on those numbers thanks to a deep group of talented targets. There's premier deep threat Kelvin Harmon, the reliable Stephen Louis, and speedster Jakobi Meyers. The biggest question is can senior running back Reggie Gallaspy replace Hines' production as the lead backfield option.
2. James Madison's defense
Last season, the Dukes were dominant on defense, leading the FCS at just 11.1 points per game allowed while producing a subdivision-best 44 turnovers, 31 of those via interceptions. While James Madison is replacing some key players, including defensive end Andrew Ankrah, the CAA Defensive Player of the Year in 2017, and safety Raven Greene (five INTs), the Dukes still have plenty of talent on that side of the ball.
Cornerback Jimmy Moreland recorded 68 tackles, along with eight interceptions, two fumble recoveries and 14 pass breakups. He ranked second nationally in interceptions, and fifth in passes defended per game. Head coach Mike Houston also added a new piece to his secondary in safety Wayne Davis, who transferred from Ohio State. A redshirt sophomore, Davis is a Norfolk, Virginia, native, and was the state's Gatorade Player of the Year in 2015 prior to committing to the Buckeyes.
3. Wolfpack defense
NC State is tasked with replacing eight starters on defense, including four NFL draft picks, but the cupboard isn't entirely bare on that side of the ball.
Darian Roseboro and Eurndraus Bryant received a lot of snaps last season despite having players like Bradley Chubb and B.J. Hill ahead of them on the depth chart. Even though he's made just two starts, Roseboro is 15th in school history with 13.5 career sacks. The Wolfpack also have safety Jarius Morehead and cornerback Nick McCloud returning as starters in the secondary and will rely heavily on senior Germaine Pratt to anchor the linebacking corps.
NC State thoroughly knows what happened to East Carolina a season ago. So the Dave Doeren's Wolfpack will not underestimate James Madison in any way, shape or form. Although the Dukes are in better shape than many FCS programs, the Wolfpack will be a step up in competition.
Not only is NC State one of the better teams in the ACC, but arguably should have been ranked in the top 25 to start the season. Ryan Finley is one of the best quarterbacks in the country and the Wolfpack receivers have plenty of speed and athleticism that will be difficult for the Dukes to match up with. Also, depth should come into play during the latter stages of the game. While James Madison may keep it close for a quarter, NC State should be able to pull away in the second half.
Prediction: NC State 44, James Madison 20
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.