Wake Forest football is back on the road this weekend, playing NC State in Raleigh. To give some context for how to think about this game, I’m going to look at the recent history between these two programs, how NC State’s season is lining up, and how a win or loss for Wake plays into its bowl aspirations.
Recent Series History
Wake and NC State first played in 1895 (a 4-4 tie), and have played every year since 1910. In the past decade, the series has been competitive, with each team picking up five wins. Eight out of ten times, the home team has emerged victorious. The exceptions bookend the decade: in 2006, Wake beat NC State 25-23 in Raleigh, and last year, the Wolfpack won 35-17 in Winston-Salem.
In the rhetorical style of a certain former coach, the game last year really could have been quite different if you just took away the 28-0 NC State run in the first quarter. In the first 15 minutes of action, the Deacs gave up four touchdowns on passes of 59 and 58 yards and runs of 85 and 57 yards (both by Matthew Dayes, who finished with over 200 yards rushing). But, the Deacs won the rest of the game 17-7!
It’s not too dissimilar from how the Indiana game opened this past weekend, except that obviously this time our defense forced five turnovers to secure the win. It seems unlikely we’ll get another five interceptions this week, so the secondary is going to have to do a bit better at clamping down on big plays.
NC State’s Season
I’m not going to pretend to know the psyche of the Wolfpack players or fans. The idea here is just to line up what games NC State has played and what’s coming up, so we can pull some conclusions out of thin air. I mean, conduct rigorous analysis.
NC State is 2-1 (they, like Indiana, are playing Wake off their bye week). The Wolfpack beat FCS squad William & Mary 48-14, lost at ECU 33-30, and beat Old Dominion 49-22. Sagarin currently has those teams ranked 168, 76, and 136, respectively. For reference, NC State is ranked 49 and Wake is ranked 62.
I don’t take anything away from NC State for their loss to a tough ECU team playing in front of an energized home crowd (even though ECU did just get obliterated by VT to the tune of 54-17). But, the Wolfpack do not yet have anything to classify as a “good win.” It’s great to rack up points against teams like W&M and ODU, but it doesn’t say much about where your program is. For some context, William and Mary just lost by 17 points to Elon (Sagarin #212).
NC State’s past schedule reminds me a bit of the situation with Duke, which posted a 49-6 rout over NC Central the week before the Wake game. Duke’s players and fans seemed relatively confident based on their performance (while Wake fans were bemoaning the 7-3 effort against Tulane). Fortunately, it turns out Wake is a much different opponent than NCCU.
Another aspect to consider is the Wolfpack’s upcoming slate of games. I’m not sure I really buy into the idea of “trap games” and teams “looking forward” to later opponents, but if there’s ever a time for that this might be it. After the game against Wake, NC State hosts Notre Dame in what suddenly looks like a winnable game over a big name program. Then, the Wolfpack travel for a brutal two weeks at Clemson and at Louisville. It’s not too difficult to imagine that stretch of games taking some focus away from the matchup with the Deacs.
On the other hand, this game is close to a “must-win” for NC State. It may be one of three games the rest of the season that NC State will be favored to win (along with matchups against Syracuse and BC). If NC State runs the table on those games, it will still need another win to ensure bowl eligibility. Notre Dame is actually the next “easiest” game on the schedule, so there is not much wiggle room for NC State’s bowl hopes. That’s a reason to believe Dave Doeren will have his team ready to play in the #BattleOfTheDaves.
Season / Bowl Implications
Unlike State, Wake is in a good position to go bowling regardless of the outcome of this game. The Deacs only need to pick up two wins in the rest of the season to be bowl eligible, and has home games against Syracuse, Army, UVA, and BC. That said, a win here would give the Deacs even more breathing room for a bowl and would be Wake’s most impressive win so far. It would also set Wake up with a good shot at having a special season beyond achieving minimum bowl eligibility.
Also, while NC State may have less in common with Wake than Duke does, the programs do compete for some regional recruits. Any win against Duke/NC State/UNC carries some extra weight for Wake for that reason.
Finally, a win would put Wake at 5-0. There are currently 27 undefeated teams in the FBS, and Wake has started receiving votes in both the AP and the Coaches Poll. I’m not sure we’d sneak in even at 5-0, but it would lay the groundwork for a possible win against Syracuse to go 6-0 and possibly have a top 25 ranking for the first time since 2008.
That said, the line favors the Wolfpack by 9-10 points for a reason. NC State is a very talented team, playing at home, and coming off the bye. It is ranked in the 40s by Sagarin and S&P+, showing the fundamental strengths of the team despite the lack of any big wins so far. Meanwhile, the Deacs will still be missing their starting QB and RB. Wake is a clear underdog in this one, but it’s a winnable game and I will be rooting for the upset. Go Deacs!