College football Top 25: Will No. 9 NC State realize its massive potential?

·5-min read

The college football season is upon us and so is our annual Top 25. This year Yahoo Sports revealed the teams from No. 11 to 25 at once before we publish each of our top 10 in separate posts in the days leading up to Week 1. That continues with No. 9 NC State.

Previously: 11-25, No. 10 Oregon

No. 9 NC State

  • 2021 record: 9-3 (6-2 ACC)

  • ACC odds: +700

  • National title odds: +15000

  • Over/under: 8.5

NC State was a frustrated team after the 2021 season. The Wolfpack had won four of their last five games to finish the regular season at 9-3 ahead of a Holiday Bowl matchup against UCLA. A win against the Bruins would give NC State its first 10-win season since 2002.

That game never happened. UCLA had to call the game off hours before kickoff because of COVID-19 cases inside the program. That decision was much to the chagrin of NC State. Coach Dave Doeren said that he felt “lied to” by UCLA ahead of the game and the Wolfpack was awarded the trophy for the game even though it was officially declared a no contest.

NC State left San Diego believing it finished the season at 10-3 even though it officially finished the season with nine wins. After all, when you’ve waited nearly 20 years for a 10-win season, you really want to hit that mark when you’re so close. And there’s a pretty good chance NC State is officially going to get to 10 wins in 2022.

North Carolina State is our preseason No. 9 team in college football. (Yahoo Sports Illustration/Amber Matsumoto)
North Carolina State is our preseason No. 9 team in college football. (Yahoo Sports Illustration/Amber Matsumoto)

17 returning starters

The Wolfpack have all the ingredients for a fantastic season. NC State returns all but one starter on the defense and boasts one of the best linebacking groups in the country. Drake Thomas led the team in tackles and sacks in 2021 and returns on the strong side. Middle linebacker Isaiah Moore and outside linebacker Payton Wilson are also back after injury-shortened 2021 campaigns.

The secondary returns totally intact as well after an incredibly stingy season against the pass. Opposing offenses threw for just 208 yards per game against NC State and QBs completed less than 53% of their passes.

The offense needs to replace leading rusher Zonovan Knight and leading receiver Emeka Emezie but experienced QB Devin Leary is one of the best in the ACC. With Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman set to miss the start of the season, Leary enters 2022 as the likely first-team All-ACC QB if he repeats his 2021 campaign. Leary thew for over 3,400 yards a season ago with 35 TDs and just five interceptions. Underneath threat WR Thayer Thomas is back for another season and Devin Carter is set to start opposite him after averaging 18 yards a catch in 2021.

Aiming for Clemson

NC State would be a favorite for the ACC title game if the conference was eliminating its divisions ahead of the 2022 season. But with the Atlantic and Coastal divisions in their final year of existence, NC State finds itself once again in the same division as Clemson and needs to beat the Tigers and defending division champion Wake Forest to make the conference championship game for the first time ever.

This year’s game against the Tigers is on the road. NC State travels to Clemson on Oct. 1 after beating Clemson, 27-21, at home in 2021. That victory propelled NC State into the top 25 and the team spent all but two weeks inside the top 25 the rest of the season.

The Wake Forest game, meanwhile, is at home on Nov. 5. Hartman could be back by that time as NC State aims to avenge a 45-42 shootout loss on the road a season ago.

A split in those two games keeps NC State in the thick of the Atlantic race depending on how tiebreakers shake out and also on track for a 10-win season. The non-conference schedule isn’t full of cupcakes — a trip to East Carolina in Week 1 could be tricky and Texas Tech visits in Week 3 — but the Wolfpack should be favored in all three of their non-conference games.

North Carolina State's Drake Thomas (32) surveys the offense against Louisiana Tech during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)
North Carolina State's Drake Thomas (32) surveys the offense against Louisiana Tech during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

Biggest game: Oct. 1 vs. Clemson

This one is a no-brainer even though Wake is the defending division champion. A second straight win over Clemson puts NC State in the driver’s seat for the ACC title game.

Impact player: LB Drake Thomas

Thomas emerged as one of the best all-around linebackers in the country in 2021 and eschewed the NFL for a fourth season at NC State. Thomas had 100 tackles, six sacks and three interceptions a season ago and led the team in all three categories. If Moore and Wilson stay healthy throughout the season, Thomas could end up with even bigger numbers as opposing offenses can’t solely focus on game-planning around him.

Over/under

  • Over 8.5 (-160)

Betting NC State to finish with eight or fewer wins is at +135. And that’s just not a good enough potential return when you consider the talent on this team and the manageable schedule. NC State could easily be 7-1 or better ahead of that Wake Forest game on Nov. 5, though the season ends with games at Louisville and North Carolina. We’ll aim for a 9-3 regular season with a bowl game serving as another chance to get to 10 wins.