Instead of postseason in Florida sunshine, Wolfpack settles for Sun Bowl

Notre Dame’s selection to the Citrus Bowl bumped State down a notch in the ACC’s bowl pecking order, sending it to El Paso, Tex., on Dec. 29

Dave Doeren and his NC State Wolfpack will play Arizona State at the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Tex., on Friday, Dec. 29 ( Rob Kinnan/USA TODAY Sports)

Give Bernie Olivas, executive director of the Sun Bowl, credit for having an accurate read on both his game’s place in the college football postseason hierarchy and the perspective of at least one of the teams his selection committee picked to play in it.

“I don’t think anybody sets out with their goal to be at the Sun Bowl,” he said on a teleconference Sunday, shortly after announcing this year’s matchup between NC State (8-4) and Arizona State (7-5). “But if you can’t be playing in the big bowls, this is a great place to be.”

It wasn’t that long ago that the Wolfpack had visions of a College Football Playoff berth dancing in its collective head. Even after that dream was dashed, coach Dave Doeren and his team still harbored hopes of representing the ACC in the Orange Bowl.

Or at the very least, a warm weather destination elsewhere in Florida for the postseason.

Instead, Notre Dame’s selection to the Citrus Bowl bumped State down a notch in its conference’s bowl pecking order, sending it to El Paso, Texas, to take on an opponent that will be playing its final game under a lame duck coach.

While Olivas and his staff will undoubtedly show both teams a good time leading up to the 84th renewal of the second-oldest game on the current bowl calendar, the Sun isn’t exactly the reward the Wolfpack had in mind. That doesn’t mean it won’t be motivated to play well, win and finish the year on a high note.

“At NC State, this is our 125th year of football and there’s been 11 nine-win teams total. So to get to that mark would put us in the top 10 percent of program history,” Doeren said. “That would be great for this senior class, the coaching staff and for the continued growth and development of our program.”   

All things considered, it’s been a good week for State, with Doeren turning down an offer from Tennessee and signing a contract extension to stay in Raleigh, and four-star linebacker Payton Wilson flipping his commitment from rival North Carolina to the Wolfpack.

Arizona State, by contrast, is a team seemingly headed in the opposite direction.

Even though the Sun Devils won three of their last four, including a season-ending 42-30 victory against rival Arizona, coach Todd Graham was fired after six years at the helm. Arizona State is set to introduce ESPN analyst Herm Edwards as its new head coach at a Monday press conference. Edwards, 63, is a former NFL defensive back who coached the Jets (2001-05) and Chiefs (2006-08) before spending the last nine years at ESPN.

Graham and his staff will remain on the job to coach the team against the Wolfpack, a situation Doeren said shouldn’t affect his team’s preparations for the game.

“I don’t see it being different in this case, because he’s coached however many seasons down there and this entire season,” Doeren said. “The staff is all the same. We’ll treat it as if he was the acting head coach and was going to continue to be.”

Of greater concern to Doeren than the leadership on the opposite sideline will be the availability of ACC Defensive Player of the Year Bradley Chubb.

The senior defensive end, State’s all-time sack leader, is considering not playing in the bowl in an effort to help protect his lofty NFL draft status. It’s a similar decision to the one Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, now with the Carolina Panthers, made in sitting out last year’s Sun Bowl.

Doeren said he plans to meet with Chubb and his family in the coming days to determine what his star player plans to do.

“They’re the kind of family that really talks things through,” Doeren said. “Whatever they decide, we’ll do whatever they feel is best for Bradley. He’s done everything he can for this football program. We understand he’s got a tough decision to make.”

This will Be NC State’s first trip to the Sun Bowl, but it’s the third time in the last four years a state team has represented the ACC in El Paso. Duke lost a five-point decision to Arizona State in 2014 while North Carolina was beaten 25-23 by Stanford last year.