USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Dave Doeren opened North Carolina State's cupboard and found some stale bread, an open container of mustard, a half-eaten sac of pretzels and a bag of stale potato chips. It wasn't totally bare, but it's time to go grocery shopping.
As much as any program in the Atlantic Coast Conference – and perhaps most of all – N.C. State needs a roster overhaul. The holdovers from the previous coaching regime fell flat in Doeren's system; a portion of the blame does fall on the new staff, to be fair, but the general lack of cohesive depth was the primary culprit behind the Wolfpack's winless turn through ACC play.
COUNTDOWN: Complete list (so far)
Some help is already here. More is on the way. N.C. State's end-of-year two-deep featured seven true freshmen, most devoted to the offensive skill positions. February's recruiting class was better, though the program is stuck in a bit of conundrum – since the region's best recruits won't choose Raleigh until the winning ways return, but the winning ways may not return until more talent arrives on campus. Call it N.C. State's Catch-35 – the number of years since the program's last ACC title.
It's time for Doeren and the Wolfpack to close the borders. This starts in recruiting: Doeren's first full class added depth, but only four of North Carolina's top 20 recruits signed with the Wolfpack, per Rivals.com. The state's best prospect, five-star running back Elijah Hood, ended up at North Carolina.
And then there's the football product. Of N.C. State's nine losses last fall, four stand out among the pack: UNC, Duke, Wake Forest and East Carolina. All teams inside the state; all losses. Not since 1943 had N.C. State lost four or more games to in-state rivals in the same season. That season included setbacks to Camp Davis and North Carolina Navy Pre-Flight, but still: NCSU needs to reassert its place in the pecking order.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
Here's how I see the schedule: N.C. State should go 5-2 against the group of Richmond, Central Michigan, Wake Forest, Syracuse, Duke, Boston College and Maryland; split against Louisiana Tech and East Carolina; and get swept or take no more than one of three against Clemson, UNC and FSU. Of course, the Wolfpack could go 6-1 against the first seven, 2-0 against the second pair and 0-3 against the final trio, or some other permutation. The main theme is that this is a seven-win team, more or less.
In a nutshell: Doeren's debut was a bit of train wreck, as the record suggests. Three wins, one against Richmond. Nine losses, including all eight against ACC competition. But to say the Wolfpack were entirely overmatched would be incorrect. Of those eight ACC games, only two were out of hand in the second half – Florida State, of course, and Maryland. The rest? N.C. State was either ahead or behind by no more than eight points at some point during the second half against its remaining six league foes; the Wolfpack were either tied or ahead of Duke and Syracuse in the fourth quarter. What this says is simple: one, depth was terrible, and two, the depth was really terrible. Yeah, Doeren's reputation lost some luster, but don't throw all the blame on his plate.
High point: The three wins in September. The best? NCSU had no problem beating up on Central Michigan, dropping 48 points on a team that would end its year with bowl eligibility.
Low point: The close losses hurt worse than those that got away. N.C. State never had a chance against FSU; between UNC, Duke and Syracuse, on the other hand, the Wolfpack may have left at least one win on the field.
Tidbit: N.C. State started last season short on experience and lost bodies along the way. The Wolfpack entered the year with 11 returning starters, one of the lowest totals among major-conference programs. By year's end, however, N.C. State had lost more than 40 starts to injury among its projected starters; more than 30 of those injury-lost starts came on the offensive side of the ball.
Tidbit (quarterback edition): The Wolfpack went 0-3 last fall when throwing for two or more touchdowns without any interceptions. In comparison, the rest of the ACC went 28-5 in such games. This does not make sense.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Beasts of burden
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: This more than anything: N.C. State has found a quarterback. That the quarterback has the skill set to drastically upgrade the Wolfpack's pass-game production is simply a bonus – an enormous bonus, of course, but the simple step of locating a clear-cut, unquestioned starter has been the most positive aspect of the team's offseason. Meet the new guy: Jacoby Brissett comes over from Florida, having left Gainesville after losing out on the starting job, and immediately gives NCSU the sort of athlete and pure passer capable of developing into an all-conference contender. All that remains is for Brissett to translate his physical gifts into production; that's an unknown, given his limited game-day sample size, but he clearly impressed during his one season on the scout team – and yeah, Brissett was easily, easily the best quarterback on N.C. State's roster in 2013.
He'll have his hands full. Brissett knows the system, which is important. But he's not surrounded by great talent – back to the empty cupboard mentioned earlier – and will need to lead by example on the field and off for this otherwise questionable offense. That should stymie Brissett's chances at having an overly impressive statistical season in 2014, in my mind. But let's focus on the positives, and I can think of three: one, he's a physical upgrade over Pete Thomas and Brandon Mitchell; two, he's worthy of being the centerpiece of this offense, with all the inherent pressure that entails; and three, Brissett will spend the offseason entrenched in a key leadership role, rallying an offense that needs a vocal, take-charge voice inside the huddle. I think he'll do well.
Eventually, three incoming freshmen receivers will make their impact on NCSU's passing game. One already has: Bo Hines enrolled early and carved up the Wolfpack's secondary – grain of salt and all that, but he stood out – essentially assuring the rookie of a substantial role in the team's rotation. If the spring results hold in September, Hines will provide a boost to a receiver corps that leans young, despite some promising cogs. One would be Hines; a second is sophomore Marquez Valdes-Scantling (22 receptions for 281 yards); a third is sophomore Jumichael Ramos (24 for 352). But the key to the whole deal is senior Bryan Underwood's (32 for 382) ability to stretch the field, giving Brissett and this offense the downfield presence it needs to open up lanes for this running game. David Grinnage returns at tight end, though I imagine true freshman Cole Cook will work into a role as a pure receiving option.
You have to like the potential up front. One thing about Doeren's first full recruiting class: N.C. State found some really nice young linemen. They'll need time to develop, but adding a quintet of solid-to-strong rookies to indoctrinate into this system gives this line an extremely strong foundation for the future. Better days are coming, basically, though this year's group again fails to inspire confidence – as much a theme of N.C. State football as anything. I imagine Doeren and this staff will try to audition as many linemen in as many roles as possible in an effort to create a more cohesive unit, but there's always the chance that the same starting group remains on top: Rob Crisp returns at tackle, joining Joe Thuney and Tyson Chandler – Crisp's return is big – while Quinton Schooley and Alex Barr are back along the interior. The only open spot is at left guard, but NCSU could either move one of the extra tackles inside or hand the job to one of several youngsters.
Defense: Change are afoot. N.C. State will try out a new scheme, the 4-2-5, in an effort to put more athleticism on the field defensively – a move that should lead to more aggressiveness, more speed along the back seven and more turnovers, hopefully. The entire defense hinges on the play of the front four, a significant concern, but the move to 4-2-5 will help the Wolfpack survive at linebacker without two of last season's most reliable contributors. At the same time, the defense will stress secondary play, as the formation suggests; NCSU shouldn't feel very comfortable about its degree of consistency in the defensive backfield.
While the defense as a whole loses about half of its contributors – 14 of the 29 defenders to earn a letter in 2013 are gone – this attrition is felt least up front, where three starters and a good slice of the end-of-year rotation remain in the fold. One is bigger than the rest: Art Norman (30 tackles, 4.5 sacks) is NCSU's only dangerous rusher along the line, and as such holds as much or more importance than any other starter throughout the entire defense. He could use some help. Good news: N.C. State inked a pair of four-star ends in February, Justin Jones and Kentavius Street, and both should earn major minutes as rookies – if only as situational assets in certain packages. On paper, each rookie has the size to fit nicely into the bigger-end role left vacant by Darryl Cato-Bishop, though junior Mike Rose looks like the new starter.
The Wolfpack will have options on the edges. Of far greater concern is the lack of fortitude along the interior; this group embarrassed itself a season ago, essentially wilting and rolling over once the calendar turned to the meat of the ACC season. There's no immediate help coming from the recruiting class – though Street and Jones could play inside on passing downs – so the same cast simply must improve: NCSU needs more from sophomore Monty Nelson and seniors Thomas Teal and T.Y. McGill. Adding redshirt freshman Kenton Gibbs and true freshman B.J. Hill – an early enrollee – into the mix helps, but it's really on that returning threesome to deliver. There's some experience there, so any excuses fall on deaf ears. But would you be surprised if I told you the Wolfpack could use another four or five interior linemen on the recruiting trail?
With D.J. Green and Robert Caldwell gone, there's a great chance that four-star freshman Germaine Pratt plays immediately in the back seven. A player of his size and speed would fit well into this scheme; the Wolfpack can tinker with personnel, but a three-down hybrid linebacker-safety – one who can support the run, harass the backfield and run in space – is essentially priceless. At some point, Pratt will be that guy. As for more traditional linebackers in this system, NCSU will build around junior M.J. Salahuddin (25 tackles) and seniors Brandon Pittman (62 tackles) and Rodman Noel. Young players are dotting the two-deep, several coming off redshirt seasons, but you have to think Doeren and coordinator Dave Huxtable will begin with this more experienced group.
Like the offensive line, the secondary should mature nicely during the next two seasons. What about today, you ask? Well, let's remember that if a year older – a year wiser, a little more aware of what's to come – the Wolfpack's secondary is still dangerously young; this youth is exacerbated a touch by the scheme shift, but it's better to overhaul a mentality with underclassmen set for major roles. Let's think about how young this group really is: N.C. State added five rookie defensive backs to a secondary with just one senior set for a major role, so youth rules the day. It'll be junior Juston Burris (54 tackles) and sophomores Jack Tocho and Niles Clark at cornerback, as was the case last fall, while juniors Hakim Jones (55 tackles) and Tim Buckley join senior Jarvis Byrd at safety. Byrd needs to prove his health after year another knee injury, but his experience is in high demand along the back end. I really think Pratt can be a weapon immediately as that roving, bigger safety.
Special teams: It happened so quickly, it seems: Niklas Sade went from a frustrating, potential-laden-but-inconsistent kicker to one of the very best in college football. As he prepares for his senior season, Sade should earn very heavy consideration as a preseason All-American. Punter Will Baumann returns, but the Wolfpack do have two major concerns: one, electric returner Rashard Smith is gone, and two, last year's coverage teams were abysmal. Remember what I said about depth, or the lack thereof? Yeah, it manifested itself in coverage.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Running back: N.C. State's last 1,000-yard rusher came in 2002. That's a long time. The pressure is on: NCSU needs a reliable ground game to help Brissett, for one, but a healthy degree of production would help Doeren and offensive coordinator Matt Canada fully realize this up-tempo, quick-paced scheme – that's the plan, at least, though it wasn't plainly evident a season ago. The team's search for a lead back remains stuck in neutral as a result of Shadrach Thornton's (768 yards) indefinite suspension; he's the go-to option if available, as he proved a year ago, and should eventually work his way into Doeren's good graces by the start of ACC play. In the meantime, however – and I imagine Thornton will miss a bit of game time – the Wolfpack have no choice but to move forward with sophomore Matt Dayes (252 yards), the starter in Thornton's absence, while creating some semblance of depth from the group of senior Tony Creecy and four redshirt and true freshmen. Dayes is fine in reserve, though the Wolfpack need Thornton. But why will this year be any different? The line isn't ready to take the next step and Brissett is still unproven, despite his clear physical gifts. In short: Don't expect miracles, don't expect a 1,000-yard back and don't expect a drastic change in overall production.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
South Florida: The schedule's fairly kind, seeing as there's just no avoiding FSU or Clemson – not to mention Louisville, which plays host on Oct. 18. The Wolfpack's biggest game comes against South Florida: NCSU needs to start 4-0 to remain in the bowl hunt, in my opinion, and will enter ACC play undefeated should it knock off the Bulls on the road. The year ends at North Carolina, which is pretty cool; the two rivals have never met in Chapel Hill to end the regular season.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: What's funny about this team is this: N.C. State isn't good – no, not good – but don't be surprised if the Wolfpack sneak into bowl eligibility. Thank the schedule, which should leave the Wolfpack no worse than 3-1 heading into ACC play and could – thanks to home games against Boston College and Wake Forest – yield two or three additional wins during conference action. The end result could be one of the flimsiest, least impressive six-win teams in all of college football … and that'd be cool, wouldn't it? I mean, all six wins aren't created equal; that doesn't mean Raleigh wouldn't smile all winter after a six-win finish.
But that's probably not going to happen: N.C. State should win five games with this schedule, but this team has no discernable strengths whatsoever. What you see is potential, however, and at several key positions in particular. Quarterback is certainly one. Another is the offensive line, which could develop into something special during the next two years; likewise with the secondary. There are several weak links: N.C. State's offense remains unbalanced, due to a faulty ground game, and the defense as a whole is sorely lacking in proven production. This is far from a complete team, to put it mildly, and as such should make little noise in the ACC.
Let's revisit one key point. Doeren didn't inherit a good situation: N.C. State's previous staff did him no favors whatsoever, meaning Doeren and this staff must quickly rebuild this roster on the recruiting trail – paying close attention to today, of course, but also keep one eye on tomorrow. I really think it's going to take this season and next for the Wolfpack to adequately stock this roster with the talent and depth needed to challenge for eight wins in this conference. This team has the schedule to eke out five wins, but that shouldn't cloud the work that remains to be done before NCSU is a viable contender.
Dream season: N.C. State goes 8-4, capping the regular season with a satisfying 30-point win against UNC.
Nightmare season: The Wolfpack again go 3-9, a major disappointment given this schedule.
Who's No. 87? This program has won its last 13 games when leading at halftime.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014