NC State needed to win its regular season finale against bitter in-state rival North Carolina to become bowl eligible. Not only did the Wolfpack go on the road and defeat the Tar Heels 28-21, but they followed that up with a convincing 41-17 victory over Vanderbilt in the Independence Bowl.
Now entering 2017, expectations are higher for head coach Dave Doeren and company. While the schedule isn’t easy, the Wolfpack will play some of their tougher games at Carter-Finley Stadium.
Here are NC State’s 12 regular season games ranked from easiest to most difficult.
12. Sept. 16 vs. Furman
Playing the Paladins the week before facing Florida State was a smart move for NC State. This will give the Wolfpack a chance to iron out any kinks before they take on the Seminoles in Doak Campbell Stadium. Furman, who hails from the FCS ranks as a member of the Southern Conference, went 3-8 last season.
11. Sept. 9 vs. Marshall
After opening the season in Charlotte against South Carolina, NC State will host Marshall from Conference USA. The Thundering Herd are coming off of a disappointing 3-9 showing, their fewest wins in seven seasons under head coach Doc Holliday.
10. Sept. 30 vs. Syracuse
The Orange went 4-8 in Dino Babers’ first season, but there is optimism for better results this fall. Syracuse finished 42nd in total offense last year even though quarterback Eric Dungey missed several games because of injury. If Dungey can stay healthy, the Orange could field one of the better offenses in the ACC in 2017.
9. Nov. 11 at Boston College
The Eagles went just 2-6 in ACC play, but still finished with seven overall wins in 2016, including a victory over Maryland in the Quick Lane Bowl. Boston College once again figures to be led by its defense, which finished ninth in the FBS in yards allowed per game last season. Points could be hard to come by for NC State on the road against this defense.
8. Nov. 18 at Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons surprised a few people last season by going 7-6 and closing things out with a 34-26 win over Temple in the Military Bowl. Wake Forest’s defense led the way, ranking 40th in the country in total defense. The Demon Deacons are a young team, as only seven seniors played last season, so head coach Dave Clawson has plenty of experience to rely on this fall.
7. Sept. 2 vs. South Carolina (Charlotte)
NC State kicks off its season at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte against neighbor South Carolina. The Gamecocks won six games and played in the Birmingham Bowl in head coach Will Muschamp’s first season, but need to show significant improvement on offense. South Carolina finished 115th in the nation in total offense and 116th in scoring in 2016.
6. Oct. 28 at Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish were a disappointing 4-8 in 2016, making this a critical season for head coach Brian Kelly. Even though there will be a new quarterback following DeShone Kizer’s departure for the NFL, the Irish return eight starters on offense, including four up front. The defense brings back seven starters and its improvement could determine how much of a turnaround Kelly and company are able to orchestrate.
5. Nov. 25 vs. North Carolina
These two rivals usually provide entertaining matchups. The Tar Heels are replacing most of their offensive production and return a total of just 12 starters from a team that went 8-5 last season. Besides losing the second overall pick of this year’s NFL draft (QB Mitch Trubisky), head coach Larry Fedora is tasked with replacing 99 percent of North Carolina’s rushing and 71 percent of its receiving production from last season.
4. Oct. 14 at Pittsburgh
Even though the Panthers defeated both Clemson and Penn State last season, Pat Narduzzi’s team hast a few key players to replace. Quarterback Max Browne, a graduate transfer from USC who lost his starting job to Sam Darnold last season, is set to take over for Nathan Peterman. Former ACC Player of the Year and cancer survivor James Conner also has moved on to the NFL, but Pitt will have two of the most dynamic receivers in the country in Jester Weah and Quadree Henderson.
3. Oct. 5 vs. Louisville
If NC State is going to win the ACC Atlantic Division this is one of the three teams the Wolfpack are going to have to beat. The Cardinals feature the reigning Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Lamar Jackson, but return a total of 10 other starters. Louisville entered the home stretch of last season 9-1 and in the College Football Playoff picture, but proceeded to lose its final three games. NC State has the defensive line that could give Jackson and the Cardinals’ offense trouble, so this should be a great game in the Thursday night spotlight.
2. Nov. 4 vs. Clemson
Out of all the games last season, this was the one that got away for NC State. The Wolfpack had a shot at the huge road upset, but Kyle Bambard missed a 33-yard field goal at the end of regulation. Clemson scored on its first possession in overtime and then picked off Ryan Finley to escape with a 24-17 win.
The defending national champion Tigers will look different, especially on offense, but this is still a team that will enter the season ranked in the top 10. This time NC State gets Clemson on its turf, so can the Wolfpack pull off another upset at home?
1. Sept. 23 at Florida State
The Seminoles will enter the season as the favorite to win the ACC. They are replacing their all-time leading rusher in Dalvin Cook and several other key players, but quarterback Deondre Francois returns after throwing for 3,350 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2016. Depending on how things play out in the opener against Alabama, Florida State could enter this game undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the nation.
— 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.