The players know the opportunity awaiting this fall, starting against Tennessee in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta on Aug. 31.
"As a senior class, we realize what's at stake," said quarterback Mike Glennon, a fifth-year graduate student preparing for his second full season as the starter. "We were Coach O'Brien's first full recruiting class. That's the pitch he gave to us, that they came down from Boston College to win an ACC championship. ... That's the mindset we're going to use."
The return of Glennon and cornerback David Amerson gives both units a potential star to build around. Glennon replaced Russell Wilson and threw for 3,054 yards and 31 touchdowns, with the 31 TDs tied for second most in school history only to NFL first-round pick Philip Rivers.
Amerson, meanwhile, was a second-team Associated Press all-American after setting an ACC single-season record with 13 interceptions. The junior led a secondary that finished with a national-best 27 picks last season and returned three for touchdowns.
N.C. State (8-5, 4-4 ACC) battled injuries and inconsistent play through the first half of last year, including a 44-14 loss at Cincinnati and a 34-0 loss at Florida State. But the Wolfpack won four of five to close the year, starting with a shutout of rival North Carolina and including a 37-13 rout of then-No. 7 and eventual ACC champ Clemson.
That late run also included a rally from 27 down in the second half to beat Maryland in the regular-season finale, the biggest comeback in school history.
"Any time you have a group of experienced guys that have seen a lot and played a lot," fifth year senior center Camden Wentz said, "you try not to settle for anything less than what you've already accomplished."
O'Brien is hoping this year's team can stay healthy and apply some of those experiences to fulfill some of its potential.
"I think you talk about the ACC championship as the goal and what you set out to do when the season starts," O'Brien said. "But in order to do that, you have to focus on the task at hand each and every week. ... We always want that to be our goal, but we have to be more concerned right now with getting to be a much better football team individually so that collectively we can have success week in and week out."
The offense has four starters back on the offensive line to protect Glennon and open holes for a group of halfbacks led by senior James Washington (897 yards, seven TDs in 2011). Glennon's receivers are a little more unproven, with fifth-year senior Tobais Palmer as the leading returnee with 37 catches.
On defense, Amerson is joined by safeties Earl Wolff and Brandan Bishop, and cornerback C.J. Wilson as returning starters in the secondary playing behind an inexperienced group of linebackers. The defensive line also has experience with the return of Darryl Cato-Bishop, Brian Slay and Art Norman (seven sacks as a rookie).
Cato-Bishop said the Wolfpack players won't get ahead of themselves thinking about their chances in the ACC.
"Of course you think about it because it's every team's goal in the ACC to win the ACC championship," he said. "But you have to know yourselves. If you don't put in the work to be great or be good, you're not going to achieve your goals. ... You're either getting better or getting worse."