By the self-promoting standards of college football — where loud and look-at-me is often rewarded — Dave Doeren is the quiet coach of a historically quiet football program; a program that has a chance to make a heck of a lot of noise this weekend.
Doeren has his North Carolina State Wolfpack 4-0 and ranked 10th in the polls for the first time in two decades and one of the only times ever. They visit No. 5 Clemson on Saturday night at 7:30 ET for a nationally televised showdown.
While Doeren never has been big at screaming for attention, he also isn’t one to shy away from challenges. Big game. Big chance. That’s what he has slowly built up his program to handle and, besides, the Wolfpack beat Clemson last year in a double OT thriller in Raleigh.
Why not do it again in Death Valley, even if Clemson has the nation’s longest home winning streak that dates back to 2016?
“We’re not intimidated,” Doeren said. “We’re excited.”
Or as defensive back Devan Boykin put it simply: “Dream game.”
Maybe it’s that smooth confidence that helps propel this contest into the most important of Doeren’s career, and perhaps the most important in the program’s history.
A championship won’t be won on Saturday night, but this is more about NC State making a statement that the program matters, that the program is worth paying attention to, that the program is done with its long history in the sport’s muddled middle — often good, rarely bad, but frustratingly never great.
The Wolfpack have been playing football since 1892, yet have posted just one 10-win season (2002). NC State has never once finished in the AP top 10. Its last ACC title came in 1979. There’s rarely been any reason for fans nationally to pay it any mind.
At the same time, it is rarely bad for long and hasn’t commanded headlines because of its futility. It sits 39 games over .500 all time and has posted winning records in 17 of the past 25 seasons. It has played in a bowl game in 11 of the past 14 years.
It has just existed, a reliable 7-5, 8-4 team with plenty of good athletes and plenty of passionate fans who have been looking for that one moment to push it to the next level.
Well, no better moment than at Clemson with the whole country watching. That’s why the-biggest-game-in-school-history buzz got so loud, even Doeren was asked about it.
“I don’t know,” Doeren said. “I’ll let you guys figure that out. I haven’t studied 35 years of games, so I don’t want to speak out of turn on that. In my 10 years, I would say, ‘probably so.’ As for history, that’s a long time.”
The thing about this big game is that winning it creates bigger ones to come. Beat Clemson and the Pack would have an inside track in the ACC Atlantic Division, setting up potential showdowns with Florida State, Syracuse and Wake Forest, not to mention a possible ACC title game or even (gulp) a College Football Playoff spot.
It would also signal the arrival of what Doeren has been constructing — nine-win seasons in 2017, 2018 and 2021. Last year might have been 10, but UCLA bailed out on a bowl matchup.
The 50-year-old arrived a decade ago after leading Northern Illinois to a 12-1 season and a spot in the BCS Orange Bowl. A native of Kansas, he was considered a good coach and a solid leader, but was anything but a media darling or social media sensation.
What NC State needed, though, was someone who believed in it, who would dig in and try to unleash its potential. There is no quick fix here, but there is also no reason why the Pack can’t occasionally factor in the national discussion.
There are quality local recruits, impressive fan support and a growing university in the middle of a growing region. The key is getting everyone to believe it is possible, that the next step can be taken.
“Whether [the media] think we are good or not, we’re excited to go play a team we have a lot of respect for,” Doeren said. He then added, “We believe we can beat anybody. This team obviously did a lot of things last year that hadn’t been done here in a while. It’s a very confident group …
“Our guys are very confident,” he continued. “If they play the way that they practiced and make the plays they need to make and strain for as long as it takes, they can win.”
It is certainly talented. Quarterback Devin Leary was named Preseason ACC Player of the Year. The defense, meanwhile, is led by a slew of NFL prospects, including safety Tanner Ingle, linebackers Payton Wilson and Isaiah Moore, and others. NC State already owns a 27-14 victory over a good, 3-1 Texas Tech team that just beat Texas.
All of it fuels a belief that this year will be different, that NC State will be a team everyone is talking about. The spotlight is bright Saturday. The challenge is daunting. No matter. The coach and his program are ready.
“It’s two top-10 teams competing on a national stage,” Doeren said. “That’s why we do this … we expected to be in this position. We expected to be 4-0 going into Clemson.”
How they come out could change everything for the Pack.