Nothing says more about how a coach feels about his team than the schedule.
N.C. State's four-game nonconference schedule against a Conference USA team, a MAC team, a Division I-AA team and East Carolina screams "let's just get to a bowl."
That's how Tom O'Brien set it up for 2013, with eight home games — including all four outside of the ACC — when he knew he would have to replace quarterback Mike Glennon. The schedule stands as O'Brien's biggest parting gift to State fans and new coach Dave Doeren.
Big games don't happen by accident, especially in college football, where nonconference schedules are set three to five years out. When a coach has a team loaded for bear, he'll go away from home and play a name-brand team (see Tennessee or Connecticut last year) or even face a good team from a lower-profile conference (see Central Florida in 2010) on the road.
But when a coach knows there could be trouble, the schedule has to be set up to equal six (as in the number of wins to qualify for a bowl game).
With only four regular* (that's a different blog post) starters back on both offense and defense, N.C. State will be in transition this season, and more than just on the coaching side.
Other than moving to the Coastal Division, and avoiding Clemson and Florida State, N.C. State's schedule could not be more suited for relative success in Doeren's first season.
The games on State's schedule can be sorted into three categories:
Games: Clemson, @ FSU
Keep in mind, N.C. State went 16-3 at home the last three seasons under O'Brien and beat both Clemson and FSU on their last trips to Carter-Finley Stadium (and both as top 10 teams).
But the odds of a repeat win over either the Tigers or Seminoles (especially at FSU) are long.
N.C. State gets Clemson at home for a Thursday night game on Sept. 19. The Pack has to travel to FSU on Oct. 26, one of only two trips out of the state this season.
One key to any success this season for N.C. State is handling potential lopsided losses to these two teams. If Clemson hangs 60 on them, they have to forget it and move on to Central Michigan the next week.
If FSU, which posted a 34-0 shutout in 2011 in Tallahassee, runs up the score to avenge last year's loss in Raleigh, then State has to wet it, wipe it and say goodnight because UNC is next on the schedule.
It happens all the time, and it did last year (UNC to Virginia), but you can't let one loss turn into two and amnesia will be a must for Doeren's first team.
2) Must have
Games: Louisiana Tech, Richmond, Central Michigan
If there's any team in a bigger transition than N.C. State it's Louisiana Tech, which lost coach Sonny Dykes to Cal and replaced him with Skip Holtz.
The Bulldogs led the country in total offense last season under Dykes but "offensive innovation" and "Skip Holtz" aren't exactly synonymous. In short, the Bulldogs will still be respectable, but they're not the team that traded paint with Texas A&M in a 59-57 shootout last season.
Richmond has a history of coming to the Triangle and putting a wrench in bowl math but the Spiders are still a I-AA team and one N.C. State should not lose to at home.
Central Michigan, which had the No. 1 pick in the draft last season (remember him?), returns to Raleigh for the second time in three years. State handled the Chippewas 38-24 in 2011. The Chips also went 7-6 a year ago, which included a 55-24 loss to Doeren's Northern Illinois team. Safe to say, if there's one team Doeren will be ready for, and familiar with, it's a MAC opponent.
Games: @ Wake Forest, Syracuse, UNC, @ Duke, @ Boston College, ECU, Maryland
If those five games go chalk, State's 3-2 and needs to win three of these seven games to qualify for a bowl.
Keep in mind, while State was 16-3 the past three seasons at home, it was 6-10 on the road. Also keep in mind, going back to Chuck Amato's last season, State's 2-18 in division road games.
There's also the matter of State typically winning a game it shouldn't and losing one (at least) it shouldn't.
There are not three obvious wins on this list, although I'm inclined to go with Wake, Duke and Syracuse which would put Doeren's first team in a bowl.
Both the ECU and Maryland games are at home and it's not unreasonable to predict a split, although keep in mind that's Maryland's last ACC game and Maryland has had a way of winning every meaningful (or quasi-meaningful) game played between the two schools this century.
That would leave State at 7-5 and 3-5 in the ACC. Doeren was surprised State was picked third in the division and so was I (I think Maryland and BC will finish ahead of State in the division) but I can understand why the media couldn't collectively decide on a better viable option behind Clemson and FSU in the division.