Where does NC State go from here?

In the short term, obviously, it moves onto a road trip to Louisville, where it will face an improved Cardinals bunch in Year 4 under Scott Satterfield. Louisville opened as a field-goal favorite, and the Wolfpack certainly will have its hands full with dual-threat dynamo Malik Cunningham and the Cardinals’ stout secondary (Louisville gives up only 207.6 passing yards per contest, 4th in the ACC). 

But even if NC State manages to spring a slight upset, questions will remain. This season was supposed to feature a 3-horse race for the ACC Atlantic Division title, and while 9th-ranked Clemson has held up its end of the bargain with an undefeated mark in conference play, the 7-3 Wolfpack — and 6-4 Wake Forest, for that matter — simply have not done their part.

With the ACC transitioning away from divisions starting next year, it is possible NC State missed its window to contend in an increasingly deep conference. From 2011 through 2019, either Florida State or Clemson (both members of the Atlantic) won the ACC, but the past 2 seasons have left the door ajar for other programs to ascend to the top of the conference. 

But with quarterback Devin Leary and a decorated senior class likely on the way out after this season, coach Dave Doeren might have a mini-rebuild on his hands, and that timeline intersects with an ACC that has made strides across the board.

After all, as long as Dabo Swinney is still around, Clemson still is Clemson. Florida State has seemingly gotten over the hump in Year 3 under Mike Norvell. North Carolina, currently 9-1, has redshirt freshman Drake Maye for at least another season and is recruiting at a torrid pace under an ageless Mack Brown. 

Even the disappointing programs, such as Miami, Wake Forest and Pittsburgh, could get things going back in the right direction quickly. The Hurricanes sport a top-10 2023 recruiting class according to 247Sports, and Sam Hartman conceivably could return for a redshirt senior year with the Demon Deacons. Pittsburgh is just a season removed from an 11-3 campaign that included its 1st ACC title, and despite not being among the elite national brands, the Panthers tend to churn out pro talent. 

Then, there are the emerging programs. Duke, Louisville and Syracuse have improved dramatically after a combined 14 wins a season ago — with 2 weeks left in the regular season, the 3 programs have racked up a combined 19 wins. 

That’s 9 programs right off the bat, 8 of which already have qualified for a bowl (Miami needs a win to reach 6). 

NC State had an opening, with Clemson having a rare down year in 2021 and showing signs of vulnerability this year, to capture the Atlantic at least once. Wake Forest took advantage a season ago, while the Wolfpack had to mount a miraculous comeback against North Carolina just to reach 9 wins. 

The potential is there. North Carolina is a fertile recruiting state, and the NC State athletic department as a whole has seen winning operations develop in women’s basketball and baseball. NFL talent, from Jacoby Brissett to Bradley Chubb, have circulated through the program within the past decade. 

This is not a call for Doeren to be on any sort of hot seat. The 50-year-old has won 57.8% of his games in Raleigh over the past decade, and took Northern Illinois to the Orange Bowl, which has to count for something when measuring his current coaching ability. 

But NC State is a program that could be on the level of Ole Miss or Iowa. That is, programs that are not the cream of the crop of their respective conferences, but ones that in a year when they get hot, could reach a major bowl game.

Yet despite the ACC’s long-standing affiliation with the Orange Bowl, NC State has never reached that summit. The Wolfpack last reached the Peach Bowl in 1995, and their list of 21st-century bowl appearances have featured a lot of games whose names have been subject to the corporate sponsor merry-go-round. 

Now, the focus turns to the final 2 weeks of the regular season, the aforementioned Louisville matchup and a Black Friday trip to Chapel Hill to face an electrifying North Carolina offense. Senior linebacker Payton Wilson, despite the frustrating loss to Boston College, already was looking ahead to the rest of November.

“I hurt for everyone, but at the end of the day we’ve still got two more games to go out there and give it our all,” Wilson said. “It’s a big thing for the young guys to understand college football is hard. It’s hard to win whether you’re playing the best team in the nation or one that’s not one of the best. Every team has talent and can make plays and if you don’t show up you’ll go out there and get your tail whipped like we just did.”

If it gets to 9-3, NC State could hold its head high and say it finished strong. But 2022 was supposed to be the year for the Wolfpack, and right now, it just has not cut it.