Picked to finish in the lower half of its division, the Pack has used an improving defense and an explosive offense to finish September undefeated. The 4-0 record leaves State as the only remaining unbeaten team in the conference and has completely changed the discussion about the program.
Now it's not ‘Can NC State make a bowl game?' It's become ‘Is NC State a contender for the ACC title?' and ‘Should Russell Wilson be in the Heisman discussion?' It's a position that none of the players have ever been in, and it would be easy for the success to clout their preparation for the biggest test of the season against Virginia Tech.
Luckily for the players, head coach Tom O'Brien is the master of the reality check. O'Brien understands that September doesn't make a season, that 4-0 means nothing if you don't follow it up with a good October as well. Look no further than his assessment of the team after its drubbing of Cincinnati on national television two weeks ago.
"We aren't a good football team, we aren't a great football team," O'Brien said. "I don't know what kind of football team we are. You don't know those things until you get into October.""
A week later the Pack won its first conference game, on the road against the defending ACC champions, by a 17-point margin while putting up 45 on the scoreboard. That was enough to garner some praise from O'Brien.
"We're not very pretty," O'Brien said. "We're getting to be a tough football team, and a team that is resilient and plays the way you should play the game."
None of this should come as a surprise to those familiar with O'Brien. His motto has always been that a team is never as good or as bad as it thinks. He's gotten to repeat that mantra after several disappointing losses his first few years, but now he's getting an opportunity to use it after back-to-back big wins. His words seem to be sinking in, to his coaches and his players.
"I've got to go with what coach Bible has been preaching. He said, 'don't drink the Kool-Aid,'" offensive lineman R.J. Mattes stated this week. "We're not a bad team, but we're not as good as people are telling us we are."
O'Brien wants to keep his team from becoming satisfied with where they are and keep them hungry for that next win. Defensive end Michael Lemon, part of a much-improved defensive line that is limiting opposing offenses to 311 yards of total offense, has his focus on that next win against perennial ACC powerhouse Virginia Tech.
"We come out every day knowing we're 4-0," Lemon said. "And we really want to be 5-0 so we come out and just try to work hard and get better at the things we do."
O'Brien has gotten his point across to his players – treat October 1st like they did September 1st.
"It's all part of them understanding where they are and how they got to this point... how they've got to continue doing what they've done this past month," O'Brien said. "If they don't, they are not going to be able to continue winning football games."