JOHNSON: Defining Game for O'Brien

The season, and perhaps Tom O'Brien's job, is on the line Saturday in the most important game of O'Brien's tenure in Raleigh.

Just a week ago, the discussion of Tom O'Brien being on the hot seat seemed a little ridiculous.

After all, how could a 4-3 season with five games left be the catalyst for putting a coach's job in jeopardy. There was too much time left – enough games to salvage a disappointing year and at least show some progress heading into 2012. The team was getting healthier, Mike Glennon was turning into a legitimate star and the defense was coming off its best performance of the year.

Then Saturday happened.

The Pack was embarrassed, drubbed, blown out – pick your term. It was an ugly scene and the second time this season the Pack has put on such a pitiful display in a loss. It wasn't so much the loss as the way the loss happened, a sign of a team that hasn't made much progress during the season and has regressed mightily from a year ago.

So now, just one game after dismissing the notion it's time to accept that O'Brien is in fact on the hot seat. For the first time in his tenure, it appears that O'Brien could be coaching for his job.

Which makes this Saturday's game against North Carolina the most important game of his coaching career in Raleigh. It's a game he has to win if he wants his team to have a realistic chance at bowl eligibility. It's potentially a game he has to win if he wants to keep his job beyond this season.

NC State fans have been down this road before – a coach quickly losing support and facing North Carolina with his job potentially on the line.

In 2006, Chuck Amato entered a very similar circumstance, with his team reeling from a five-game losing streak and his support among the Pack faithful dwindling more by the minute. Amato and the Pack lost to Carolina that day 23-9. By most accounts Amato's job status was decided after that loss - well before the final game, an equally embarrassing loss to East Carolina, even started.

Their paths to this point couldn't be more different, but O'Brien will be facing a very similar circumstance on Saturday afternoon.

A win gets the team back on track and restores some of the faith in O'Brien, especially when you consider very few coaches at NC State have won five straight versus the Tar Heels. Another victory in the rivalry would put the Wolfpack at 5-4 with realistic, winnable games against Boston College and Maryland, plus a home matchup versus Clemson, remaining to reach bowl eligibility (remember, the Pack must win seven games this season due to the two FCS wins).

However, a loss turns even more fans against him and extinguishes all hope of a late-season turnaround. His 4-0 record to date against the Heels will mean a lot less if he loses to a Carolina program wrapped up in turmoil and scandal with an interim head coach who will probably be cleaning out his office in a couple of months.

O'Brien will have three more games after Saturday, win or lose, to try and straighten out his team. But it's very difficult to imagine a scenario in which this team wins three straight games to end the season, particularly with one of those games against a dynamic Clemson offense.

O'Brien needs to keep intact his perfect record against the Pack's arch rival not only to salvage this season, but because it's one of the few highlights of his five-year stint with the Pack.

After Saturday's humiliating loss O'Brien is 29-29 with the Pack, seven of those wins over FCS teams, and he's fallen to 0-12 in divisional road games. Another losing season would be his fourth in five years – worse it would show a program that is going backwards instead of forward after last year's nine-win season.

O'Brien has never been fired from a coaching job. If he doesn't beat North Carolina on Saturday, that statement might not be true for much longer.

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