NC State has won 17 games over the last two seasons, including a pair of bowl games, and returns QB Mike Glennon, a bona fide threat to be a high NFL draft pick in 2013. However, now that the Pack has ditched its malaise under O'Brien, it's aiming for much bigger goals this fall. Capping the year with a postseason game that dwarfs recent destinations (the Belk Bowl and Champs Sports Bowl, for example) is on the very top of the to-do list. The Wolfpack, comprised mostly of veterans on offense and defense, is shaping up as a possible sleeper contender in the ACC, a designation it will accept with pride.
If the Wolfpack is going to elevate a little higher and even contend in the Atlantic Division, it'll need to do a much better job along the offensive line. Last season's unit, which returns all but one starter, had issues opening holes for the running backs and ranked 98th nationally in sacks allowed. With Glennon being the obvious face of the 2012 edition, it'll be incumbent upon the blockers to provide far more support for the franchise this fall.
On defense, NC State is going to be especially vulnerable right up the gut. The starting tackles are new, the linebackers are undergoing an extreme makeover and the staff is holding its breath regarding run defense. Fortunately, the defense should be outstanding on the perimeter, where there is a boundless supply of quality ends and one of the game's premier lockdown cornerbacks, junior David Amerson.
North Carolina State is no longer just happy to be here. It has solved the postseason riddle which vexed the school for a spell, and is acting as if it belongs in the ACC title chase. The Pack played well a year ago, considering it was moving on without its top offensive and defensive players, QB Russell Wilson and LB Nate Irving, respectively. Now, State wants to raise the bar just a little higher in a year in which there are holes, but also ample talent on both sides of the ball.
What to look for on offense: The maturation of the receivers. In Glennon, the Pack houses one of the dozen or so best quarterbacks in the nation, but you might not know it if he doesn't get cooperation from the wide receivers. The program lost three of its better sets of hands from 2011, leaving senior Tobais Palmer as the new leading man of the group. While he has a lot of potential as a go-to threat, he'll also need help from the rest of the supporting cast. Tight end Mario Carter and wide receivers Quintin Payton and Bryan Underwood all have the requisite ability to make plays … it's time for all three to go out and prove it.
What to look for on defense: The Pack to be vulnerable against the run. NC State is facing an imperfect storm on defense. The defensive tackles are unproven sophomores. The linebackers have been gutted to the studs. And since the secondary is terrific, opponents will be content to play smash-mouth football. The Wolfpack will know what's coming, yet still might not stand a chance. Since the corners can hold up in man coverage, look for the safeties, Earl Wolff and Brandan Bishop, to spend as much time as possible near the line of scrimmage.
This team will be much better if: It maximizes the talent in the backfield. Despite last season's 109th-ranked finish, NC State is actually home to some pretty talented running backs, such as James Washington and Tony Creecy. If Mustafa Greene, 2010's leading rusher, makes it all the way back from last year's injury, even better. The key will be for the line to give the trio more running room with which to work. The program craves offensive balance, and not just for philosophical reasons. If defenses must respect the rushing attack, the passing game instantly becomes more efficient.
The schedule: Can the Wolfpack set the tone early against Tennessee in Atlanta? The spotlight will be bright on Aug. 31, and a win could mean a huge start with a winnable game at Connecticut to follow before light scrimmages against South Alabama and The Citadel. NC State will need that time to gear up with the ACC season kicking off at Miami before going to Florida State. Unfortunately the week off comes after the Atlantic showdown with the Seminoles, but then come road games at Maryland and North Carolina, which could make or break the conference season. Three of the last four games are at home, but the lone road date is at Clemson.
Best offensive player: Senior QB Glennon. Glennon just might be the most underrated future first rounder of the upcoming season. He has it all in an NFL quarterback, yet casual fans don't know him. Scouts, however, do. With a chance to finally start for the Wolfpack, Russell Wilson's successor threw for 31 touchdowns and more than 3,000 yards in 2011. However, numbers don't even come close to defining him. At 6-foot-6 and 232 pounds, he's able to see the entire field without obstruction. He stands tall in the pocket, calmly reads the defense and then unleashes with sound fundamentals. Glennon has consistently been compared to another heady Tom O'Brien pupil, Matt Ryan, who was chosen No. 3 overall by the Atlanta Falcons in 2008. A key difference is that Glennon actually has a bigger arm. If he continues to evolve—and adds a little more muscle—he'll soar up draft boards throughout the fall.
Best defensive player: Junior CB David Amerson. Amerson began 2011 with complete anonymity. He ended it as an All-America and one of the nation's premier defensive backs. In between, he struck fear into opposing quarterbacks by picking off an ACC single-season record 13 passes. A dynamite pass defender in a rangy, 6-3, 194-pound frame, he already has NFL scouts panting about his potential on Sundays. Obviously, Amerson's numbers won't be as gaudy this fall but that'll only be because the other team will attempt to avoid him at all costs.
Key players to a successful season: The offensive linemen. There's talk of this being O'Brien's best set of blockers in Raleigh. It better be. With four starters back from a year ago, there's no longer any excuse for ranking 98th nationally in sacks allowed, while paving the way for a mere three yards a carry. The program needs its big bodies to begin consistently moving piles so that Glennon has more time to check down his receivers, and the solid stable of Pack backs can see more daylight. If the offense is going to roll, the O-line has to start carrying more of the weight.
The season will be a success if: The Wolfpack takes no fewer than seven wins into the postseason. The talk of an Atlantic Division title run seems a bit premature in a sector that contains Florida State and Clemson, but there's absolutely no reason why NC State shouldn't be assured of a third straight winning season. The schedule is no pushover, but it's also not overwhelming. South Alabama and The Citadel will come to Carter-Finley Stadium in September, and only the Nov. 17 trip to Clemson will require a really big upset.
Key game: Aug. 31 vs. Tennessee. North Carolina State doesn't get many chances to make a statement in front of a national audience. The Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta is going to be a really big deal for this program. In essence, this contest is the equivalent of a bowl game versus a prominent SEC opponent in front of a huge Georgia Dome and TV crowd. Forget the fact that the Vols have been down in recent years. If the Wolfpack can get out of Atlanta with a win, it would provide the program with a major kick start and confidence boost.