The Wolfpack will open the 2011 season with one goal in mind, putting the Russell Wilson ordeal in the rear view mirror. While Wilson was a major part of the offense the past few seasons, it isn't as if he is irreplaceable, as most of the media has led you to believe during the offseason. Regardless of whether Wilson returned or not, coach Tom O'Brien was determined to plant a strong running game into the offense, as was his mojo during his tenure at Boston College. Entering his fourth season with the program, QB Mike Glennon is hardly a stranger with the program. Patience is a virtue as he has waited his turn and now wants to prove that he can be the guy to lead the troops to a second consecutive bowl game.
Eight starters return from a defense that ranked No. 4 nationally in sacks while cracking the top 30 in scoring D. For the fifth consecutive season, the Liberty Flames are the preseason favorite to win the Big South Championship. Among the 17 returning starters are four preseason All-Americans. Head coach Danny Rocco has been brilliant in his time at Liberty, reflected by his gaudy 19-2 conference record.
Why Liberty Might Win: Every small school in the country believes it can defeat a BCS opponent after the shocking upset of Michigan at the hands of Appalachian State in 2007. Liberty has won or held a share of its conference title each of the past four seasons to establish itself as a yearly power in the Big South.
Rocco has laid an incredible foundation, which includes a conference-record 12-game home winning streak. QB Mike Brown is an offensive star who passed for nearly 3,000 yards in 2010.
Why NC State Might Win: This is the role that O'Brien tends to embrace. With the loss of Wilson at QB, many haven't given much thought to State as a contender. However, the Pack has the components to challenge for a respectable bowl game in 2011. One of the biggest priorities is to enhance the run game, which will almost certainly be a priority in the opener against a lower tier opponent.
The passing game will go as far as the productivity of the ground game will allow it, and a tune up in the first week should allow NC State to ease in the new era of Glennon under center. Across the board, the Pack outmatches Liberty in depth and talent, so execution will be the key to victory.
What To Watch Out For: NC State LB Terrell Manning is ready for the spotlight and to become the leader of an improving defense. Flashes of excellence were shown in 2010, in which he closed the season on a tear with huge games against Clemson and North Carolina. The loss of star Nate Irving will sting, so it is critical that Manning take control of the unit early in order to keep the cohesiveness together as the season progresses.
Audie Cole will move from his previous strong side position to the middle to fill void of Irving. Both Cole and Manning will look to get off to fast starts to garner the media attention that eluded both a year ago.
What Will Happen: Although Liberty has done well under Danny Rocco, it has yet to qualify for the playoffs during his tenure, making NC State a major step up in weight class. The Pack running game will be too much for Liberty, allowing Glennon to stretch the field through play-action for big gainers. Liberty's Brown will cause some issues for the Pack defense, but it will not be significant enough to cause worry.
CFN Prediction: NC State 40 ... Liberty 13