Usually, I try not to read columns (especially hockey) by Luke DeCock, sports columnist for The News & Observer, but Monday’s rambling about NC State getting screwed out of a Tier I bowl because of the wacky selection process in place due to the football playoff caught my attention. I read his prose because, if you didn't know, I'm a Wolfpack fan and thought he may shed some good light on why the Wolfpack fell to a Tier II bowl when Tier I was expected, sort of. As an aside, I find it interesting to be talking about State playing in a bowl game at all, but rules are rules and six wins qualify for a bowl and seven puts you in post-season celebration, no matter how nominal it may be, especially with a plethora of bowl games available.
Whether Luke meant to do it with a serious tone or whether it was with tongue in cheek as he said the process would boost Wolfpack theorists blaming State’s placement in the Bitcoin Bowl in St. Petersburg FL against Central Florida coached by resume builder George O’Leary squarely on Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner and UNC-Chapel Hill grad John Swofford and his counterpart of the Big Ten, Jim Delany, also a UNC loyalist, grad and booster, DeCock put it out there, probably to further infuriate State fans than to have a serious discussion of what happened. I’m reminded that State’s on-going woes in anything can always be traced directly to Swofford who probably had something to do with the academic scandal at UNC but fails to admit it. Ask any rabid NC State loyalist from the members of the NC State University Board of Trustees down to the equipment manager for women’s soccer and the thousands in between. State's woes are not our fault. So be it.
The Wolfpack, with a 7-5 overall record, was hoping and thinking, thinking and hoping for a better bowl game, maybe against a team from the Southeastern Conference, maybe in Charlotte at the Clothing Store Bowl or maybe some other better destination, though St. Pete has a possibility to be rather nice in late December with hopefully warmer climate than what can be expected in Charlotte, Nashville and points above the Mason-Dixon line (Shreveport is in the list somewhere). Thankfully, good weather or bad, the game will be indoors, unlike a trip earlier this season to Tampa for a game against South Florida, one of the Pack’s four non-conference wins.
Though there are many positives about playing in this bowl game in a warm weather location against a team that’s obviously just seconds better than State’s cousin in Greenville NC, playing a co-champion of the AAC, the American Athletic Conference with a bunch of leftovers from Conference USA and other leagues that came before them, is probably just what the Wolfpack deserved instead of a chance to knock heads with, say, Florida or Tennessee or some other of the weaker sex of the SEC.
State's football accomplishments this year came down to success in one game, that dazzling 35-7 horse-beating of our brethren in Chapel Hill in pine-shadowed Kenan Stadium in front of way less than a sellout and just a handful of blue-black-gray (whatever their school colors are) shirts in the last quarter of the game. Poor horse. One friend, who graduated from Carolina too many years ago to remember when, said that watching the last 55 minutes of that game was possibly the most-painful 55 minutes of his life, at least in recent years, like ever since Duke dominated Carolina in anything. That win by the Wolfpack made State’s season successful, as far as I’m concerned with the same being true for many other Red and White faithful and hopeful, and saved the season, despite the other six wins, two against ACC members Wake Forest and Syracuse, league bottom feeders this year with 1-7 conference records and 3-9 overall marks, and four against teams of lesser stature than those two.
We all know that State fans—me included—believe going 1-11 each year is a successful season as long as we beat the damn Tar Heels. Mission accomplished and then some this year. Yes, 7-5 with three conference wins in 2014 is a lot better than 3-9 with no league wins (including a loss to UNC) in 2013. But without that last win, State would have been 6-6, clearly disappointing at the very least. I always expect much better of the Wolfpack football team; therefore I am disappointed a lot because I finds ways that 3-9 should have been 6-6 which should have been 9-3 which should have been 12-0 and playing for the national title. (By the way, the purple and gold in Greenville believes that State and Carolina live just to beat them. They should re-think that. The Pirates are no more than an irritation on our shoulders that should just go away. Thankfully to the downsized coverage and early press deadlines by the N&O we are subjected to minimal coverage of East Carolina which for some reason thinks it’s an important part of the Triangle of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill.)
Overall there was improvement for the Wolfpack, primarily at quarterback, Jacoby Brissett, who was a pretty good threat to hit his mark as a throwing quarterback and who had the desire and ability to run for a first down and then some when necessary instead of dumping the ball to the dirt, out of bounds or into the hands of the defense as his predecessors did last year. And, because of his prowess leading the offense, the running game was better because the blocking was better, and there were some young receivers who stepped up, most of the time. The ability of the offense helped to improve the defense, yet not for every game. Overall the team played inspired some of the time. That last game (did I mention State beat Carolina 35-7 that day?) was truly inspiring offensely, defensively and in the kicking game as coach Bill Dooley would say. (Sidebar: Did you hear the one about Bill Dooley and Lou Holtz at the NC State Fair? Lou dressed in his NC State red and white, was walking down the midway and Dooley, decked out head to toe in Carolina blue and carrying a pig under his arm approached. Lou smiled and asked, “Where did you get that?” And the pig answered, “I won him here at the Fair.” Yuck; yuck.)
So, might you ask, why did the Wolfpack get what was coming to it when selected for the Tier II Bitcoin Bowl in St. Petersburg which is, at least, in Florida and not in Russia? Well, that’s because State played like a Tier II bowl team with a Tier II schedule for the most part, except against Carolina (4-4 in the ACC and 6-6 overall) and a week earlier against very weak Wake Forest. The Wolfpack also won four games against four teams that, if all could have been selected for a post-season bowl, would have been no higher than a Tier II bowl and lower if there had been a lower level. Let’s face it, Georgia Southern (9-3 and the best of the bunch but not bowl eligible because of a stupid NCAA rule), Old Dominion (6-6), and South Florida (4-8) may be in the Football Bowl Subdivision of the NCAA, but that’s a far reach from quality wins against quality teams, with all due respect to those colleges. And then there was Presbyterian (6-5), of the Big South Conference, one of those football playoff division teams. Yes, the likes of Alabama, Oregon, and Ohio State have similar games on their schedules, but those three teams along with Florida State which, on paper, played a tougher schedule with Oklahoma State, Notre Dame and Florida, have earned the right to play the weak sisters of the poor because of their respectful and righteous place in upper levels of college football society.
In future years, State Athletics Director Debbie Yow (surely with coach Dave Doeren agreeing) has decided to shape the Wolfpack's non-conference football schedule with “one Power 5 conference team, two FBS opponents from among the American, C-USA, MAC, Sunbelt and WAC, and one FCS opponent,” according to a school press release in August. That means games with Notre Dame, West Virginia and Mississippi State (not all in the same season) will be supplemented by games with Georgia State, Old Dominion, Ball State, Eastern Kentucky, William & Mary, Furman, James Madison, Delaware, Western Carolina and Charleston Southern. Troy and South Alabama are on the 2015 schedule. Memo to Debbie: Football is not listed as a sport in the WAC (Western Athletic Conference) so playing a MAC member should be interesting. Maybe State can schedule UAB. Whatever??? State fans get weak non-conference home games each year with an exception here and there. No wonder the fans arrive late and leave early.
I’m actually happy for State’s players this year, for going 7-5 and getting into a bowl game, no matter when and where it is being played. It adds practice days to the entire year. It’s a reward for something. It hopefully will help with recruiting (though that 35-7 victory over UNC in Chapel Hill probably did more for in-state recruiting). By the way, the NCAA needs to change its practice rule from the end of the season through the beginning of the next season in August. Instead of rewarding post-season teams with additional practices and leaving those without bowl games in the cold, the NCAA should give all member teams an additional 40 days of practice from the last regualr season game of one season to the pre-season practice start day of the next. Those days can be used for bowl game practice or for spring drills or for both, but it would level the practice playing field for all teams.
As happy as I am for the post-season game that was dependent on four wins against weaklings, I’m disappointed that those who schedule the games don’t upgrade the entire schedule. We’ve been told that if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck then it probably is a duck. Well, if it looks and feels like a Tier II Bowl schedule then it probably is. With the weak teams in non-conference games, the Wolfpack will need to be an upper tier team in the ACC, winning more games against upper echelon conference teams than against the non-conference foes to be considered for a Tier I bowl. It’ll take more than that to get to the higher levels of “New Year’s Day” games, and, of course, the national championship final four, six, eight, or sixteen, whatever the number gets to be, for that matter. I'm hopeful, because I'm a State fan, realistic or not.