That was after the Wolfpack opened 9-0 and climbed to No. 8 in one national poll. However, several injuries, inconsistency on offense and three straight close losses have dropped them out of the national rankings.
The latest setback was a 14-9 defeat to Virginia on Saturday, giving North Carolina State its first three-game losing streak since 1997. The Wolfpack (9-3, 4-3) close their season Saturday at home against 14th-ranked Florida State (8-3, 7-0 ACC). The Seminoles look to clinch their 10th ACC title in 11 seasons and a Bowl Championship Series berth.
"Somehow, someway have got to do everything we can to get back on the winning side of the ledger," coach Chuck Amato said during Wednesday's ACC teleconference.
"We've had a couple good days of practice for a Florida State football team that, contrary to what a lot of people thought way back when, they don't have what they used to, we are not going to play another hot team in this league that's just wacking ‘em around and are undefeated in the conference, so we are looking forward to that."
Amato's knowledge of FSU is once again expected to play a key role in the matchup – he spent 18 seasons under coach Bobby Bowden in Tallahassee. He also doesn't have to look very far for motivation. N.C. State, an upset winner in Tallahassee last season, is the only team in the ACC to have defeated FSU twice since the Seminoles joined the league in 1992. FSU is 77-4 all-time in conference play.
It has been easy to pinpoint the Wolfpack's struggles. Through the first nine games, State averaged 40.9 points per game and ranked sixth nationally in scoring offense. In the losses to Georgia Tech, Maryland, and Virginia, NC State has averaged just 15.7 points per game.
Amato must figure out an offensive gameplan to counter coach Mickey Andrews' surging Seminole defense, which has played extremely well since mid-way through the Wake Forest game Nov. 2. FSU has forced three turnovers in each of the last two games in wins over Georgia Tech and North Carolina last Saturday. Injuries and turnovers have been the biggest problems of late for the Wolfpack, who have turned the ball over nine times in the last three games.
Amato, a noted defensive specialist himself, says he has the utmost respect for Andrews, and downplayed any personal rivalry. The two speak but Amato admitted they are both "paranoid" in terms of sharing defensive secrets unless the two teams play a common opponent out of conference.
"Mickey Andrews and I, in my opinion, had a great working relationship and we were good for each other," Amato said.
"Sometimes I would play devil's advocate to something he wanted and vice-a-versa. And we worked together 16 of those 18 years and we got to think alike and we fed off one another. I think anything he does that would make him better, I would be happy for – other than the fact of playing us and him feeling the same way. That's just the competitiveness of it. You don't want anybody you are playing to do good that day. I don't care how close you are. As close as I am to cach Bowden, I wish him all the unluck there is (laughing) Saturday at 3:30 p.m. Because I need all the luck.
"But no, we are very good friends. I know I have great admiration for him (Andrews) and I believe the same thing comes back. I look to see him to do good in all the games they play and I am sure he feels the same way about me. But when we play each other, we're gonna, yeah, I want to beat him and he wants to beat me. They want to beat us and we want to beat them. It's not a him or me thing really."
It's a team thing, as Amato said, and the Seminoles can clinch the ACC title if Maryland loses either of its remaining games against Virginia or Wake Forest.
For the Wolpfack, quarterback Philip Rivers needs only 46 yards to throw for 3,000 yards on the season. Rivers leads the ACC in total offense (252.3) and is sixth on the ACC career passing list (8,594) and seventh in total offense (8,567). Additionally, tailback T.A. McLendon is third in the ACC in rushing and is fourth nationally among all freshmen averaging 88.1 yards per game.
"You bring in a lot of these freshmen backs with a lot of ability, but a lot of them are just not ready for it," Bowden said Wednesday. "They are all ready for it later but usually the first year they are simply not ready. But he looks as, oh, I can't believe how good he plays. Chuck has him a goal mine there."