The Wolfpack was left for dead time and time again, only to turn things around at the last second and keep the season alive. It was like Tom O'Brien was giving a season-long lesson in how to pull back from the brink of failure and turn it into success. Over the course of the season the Pack's head coach went from respected to doubted, then went from doubted to on the hot seat only to go back to respected by the end.
The team was written off after a 2-3 start that included no wins over FBS teams and blowout losses to Cincinnati and Georgia Tech. The early part of the schedule was the easy part, after all – there was no hope of the Pack recovering from that start when they should have been 4-1 or at worst 3-2 to start the year. Then the defensive line got healthy and the team finished the season with a 6-2 run.
The Pack was left for dead after the Boston College loss, an embarrassing display against one of the ACC's worst teams. The Pack wasn't making a bowl after that game because it would need to win its last two games and there was no chance it was beating No. 7 Clemson the following Saturday. No chance. Then the Pack went out and drubbed the Tigers 37-13 – and the game wasn't even that close.
Finally, the Pack was left for dead in the 3rd quarter against Maryland. This time the Pack was certainly dead though – trailing by 27 points with 21 minutes left in the game. There was no chance the lifeless Pack was recovering from that deficit. Absolutely none – this was definitely the end of the Pack's season. Then they scored six straight touchdowns to win by 15 points and get invited to the Belk Bowl.
All of this made the actual bowl game tame by comparison. The Pack was simply the better team – jumping out to a 21-point lead despite losing starting center Camden Wentz in the first half. It was a credit to Louisville's coaching staff that they managed to make the game close at the end thanks to a fake punt and an onside kick as the Pack fell asleep on special teams. The 31-24 win means that the Pack followed up its break-out 2010 season with another good year – a sign that the program is becoming more consistent overall even if the shape of this eight-win season was the model of inconsistency.
Tom O'Brien deserves both a ton of credit and a little blame for the shape of the 2011 season. The blame comes from being unprepared early in the year and not building enough depth to survive a rash of injuries. The credit comes for getting his team to rally time and again from impossible odds. The ability to never quit is a reflection of the character of the team, something O'Brien has worked to build since the day he stepped on campus. This is now a program that believes in itself and has the fortitude to overcome adversity.
The season was a roller coaster of ups and downs – now they have to keep building. With a roster full of returning talent and an experienced senior quarterback at the helm, the Pack has a real shot of winning an ACC title for the first time in over 30 years. The roller coaster ride was exciting for one season, but 2012 is the year where the Pack needs to take a step forward as a program.