Luke DeCock: Once in a dead zone in Atlantic Division, second place could mean something for NC State
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Luke DeCock: Once in a dead zone in Atlantic Division, second place could mean something for NC State

Dec 31, 2023

The biggest change for N.C. State this season isn’t all the new faces on offense or the leadership turnover on defense or the departure of uber-reliable kicker Christoper Dunn (and he will be missed) or the giant new video board blocking out the sun at the north end of Carter-Finley Stadium.

It’s that with the ACC finally ditching divisions and turning the football standings into a free-for-all, opening up paths to Charlotte that didn’t really exist for teams in the Atlantic Division, finishing second to Clemson in the standings finally means something.

Never mind for a second that N.C. State has only finished second to Clemson once in Dave Doeren’s tenure — in 2017, along with a second-place finish behind Wake Forest in 2021 — and Wake and Boston College both found a way to actually win the division multiple times. Don’t let facts get in the way. It’s more of an aspirational goal than anything else, the expectational gyroscope that keeps things spinning along.

Everyone knows Clemson is the biggest dog, and was unquestionably in the Atlantic Division, a big reason why N.C. State, Louisville/Maryland (as an entry) and Syracuse are the only schools never to appear in the ACC title game. First it was Florida State, and then it was Clemson, but the Atlantic always had a Final Boss to beat. The Wolfpack had some success against the Seminoles in those early years, but a blowout loss at Maryland in 2010 cost N.C. State its best chance at a division title in that era.

But now finishing second means something, almost as much as actually winning the regular-season title. And for N.C. State and everyone else, that race is wide open — and with no Notre Dame to muck things up, as those tourists did slumming it in the ACC during the COVID season of 2020. As always, the folks in South Bend lower themselves to being a member of the ACC only when it suits them or there’s something up for a vote.

For so long, a loss to Clemson — and N.C. State is 1-8 against the Tigers under Doeren — all but kneecapped N.C. State’s season, year after year. Now, in the event, there’s a realistic second chance.

The Wolfpack, with that retooled offense and culture on defense, is a popular sleeper pick to finish near the top of the ACC, and the field narrows considerably if you assume that Florida State and Miami will inevitably trip over their own shoelaces, as they so often do. So, for that matter, is North Carolina, with a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback and a defense that can’t possibly be any worse than it was a year ago.

You may remember the galaxy-brain take from this time a year ago that N.C. State and North Carolina could end up playing two games in a row — the season-ender in Chapel Hill, which turned out to be an epic, double-overtime thriller — and the ACC championship in Charlotte. That turned out to be half right. N.C. State won the battle at UNC but lost the war; the 4-4 Wolfpack stayed home, while the 6-2 Tar Heels won the Coastal without having to play Clemson or Florida State.

Recycle those thoughts. This year, that rematch in Raleigh could very well be a win-and-in contest for a spot in Charlotte. If N.C. State can get through the first two weeks – a sneaky-tough opener at Connecticut on Thursday and the Irish riding a 28-game ACC winning streak at Carter-Finley Stadium — things open up considerably after that.

Clemson, Louisville, Miami and North Carolina are all at home and two of the Wolfpack’s ACC road games are against stragglers Virginia and Virginia Tech. Going to Duke will be tricky and the Nov. 11 game at Wake Forest looms as the biggest hurdle, but there’s nothing insurmountable about that. There’s every reason to believe the Wolfpack could be 6-1 going into the Carolina game, and even at 5-2 a win might put N.C. State over the top.

So it’s all out there for the Wolfpack in a way it has never been since the ACC went to two divisions in 2005. This time, there is a prize for second place.

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