Half the battle of raising a program like NC State to an elite level, a level where BCS can be mentioned in the same breath without a hint of sarcasm, is cultivating high expectations and a winning attitude in the players themselves. However, this year Chuck Amato must have convinced the team that it really would win the ACC, rather than that it really could win the ACC.
That first loss to Wake Forest was frustrating, but we all knew Wake was a good team, and we took heart in the fact that the Deacons had to play a perfect game to defeat a mistake- and penalty-prone Pack squad. The triple-overtime loss to defending national champion Ohio State would have seemed to be easy to swallow, but it left a bit of a sting since the Pack again could have won if not for penalties, defensive lapses and questionable reads and play calls. But the same problems only multiplied in a royally ugly loss to Georgia Tech, a team that one week before needed overtime to beat 1-5 Vanderbilt, and it became clear that "next year" will not be this year.
This was really the first year NC State had to adjust to playing the role of ACC favorite. Sure, ACC writers all picked Florida State to win the league, but the rest of the country seemed to adore the Wolfpack.
Amato has been thinking and speaking big, making it no secret that a national championship is his goal. Since his arrival, millions in renovations have been made to Carter-Finley, including added seating and improved player facilities, in an effort to help the team compete on the field and in recruiting. Amato has fought and won recruiting battles with legitimate BCS contenders like Ohio State, Tennessee, and Florida State. And Amato has helped bring a winning attitude back to his school's loyal fans.
So with all these off-the-field successes, the Pack on paper seemed to be poised for a big year. Philip Rivers and Jericho Cotchery would be in their senior years, a healthy and more seasoned T.A. McClendon would be back, and we'd see the long anticipated debuts of Tramain Hall, Richard Washington, and A.J. Davis. Somehow, NC State found itself as the trendy pick as the this year's unknown team that would rise onto the national scene, and Philip Rivers received the kind of Heisman consideration that Torry Holt could have only wished for, despite UVa's quarterback, Matt Schaub, last year being considered the better player by winning the ACC Player of the Year award.
So what went wrong? We can pick from plenty of excuses: T.A. hasn't started in any the losses; yet another new offensive coordinator, Noel Mazzone, is being broken in; possibly the best corner in the ACC, Marcus Hudson, was an unanticipated loss for the year; 2002 leader in sacks, Terrance Chapman, turned out to be unable to return; and starting tackle and all-ACC candidate Chris Colmer has missed all year with a strange illness. But to be honest, I don't think having Chris Colmer in the lineup would have helped Richard Washington avoid getting bonked in the helmet and giving the ball away on that kickoff return. It's also unlikely that T.A.'s injuries had anything to do with the times State fielded only 10 players on defense, or the amazing strings of penalties that have crippled offensive drives and rescued opponents from third and long.
But what was most disheartening about the loss to Georgia Tech was how effectively it undercut the passion of State fans. Last year's loss to Tech arguably should have been more deflating, since the Pack was playing at home and 9-0 at the time. But after the game, fans amazingly stayed in the stands and defiantly shouted out the NC State cheer at the top of their lungs. In the Wake Forest game, the one that first suggested that State might not be the powerhouse we hoped, fans at the overwhelmingly red Groves Stadium could be heard over the air screaming the "Wolf"-"Pack" cheer, even immediately after Wake's devasting punt return for a touchdown that had given the Deacons an apparently insurmountable 28-3 lead.
Granted, State may have looked worse in Atlanta than at any game in a long time, and coupling that performance with our otherwise reasonable hopes for this season can be fairly mentally traumatizing. But State rebounded from the losses to Wake Forest and Ohio State to defeat a very good Texas Tech team and a UNC squad that was plenty capable of pulling its own Georgia Tech impression. Well maybe not the defensive part, but trust me, they'll have no trouble crushing ECU this weekend. We still expect great things from State, we've just always expected effort and discipline, but we shouldn't let the Georgia Tech game undermine our faith.
Maybe the expectations were unreasonable, or maybe NC State lost focus after reading about how good it was. Yet, there is still time to validate those expectations.
This weekend's opponent, UConn, may not be Florida State, or even Georgia Tech, but the 4-2 Huskies' only losses were to Boston College and Virginia Tech. UConn may be appear to be outmatched against State, but they are the kind of competitive opponent that State will still need to perform better against than it did at Georgia Tech to win.
We can look at the rest of State's upcoming schedule as either an uphill battle or an opportunity to pull itself out of its hole. Clemson, UVa, Florida State and Maryland could all be the kind of wins that could quickly mend the Pack's wounded hopes and rankings. Likewise, losses to UConn or Duke could also further rip open those hopes, so the Pack can't fold now. But neither can its fans. We know how good State can be.