Wetsell: Not the Same Old Wolfpack

With four games to go against the top half of the ACC, NC State will prove that its more than just the team with the most potential.

There once was a time when any good NC State fan could walk up to Carter-Finley on game day and buy a ticket right at the gate. There once was a time when, if someone had tickets to a game but couldn't make it, they would just give them away so they wouldn't be wasted.

What has the Wolfpack world come to when people can make profits off of their extra tickets? Look, we all knew NC State had a light schedule, but who really thought they'd still win every game up to this point? Sure, many may have thought we could,  perhaps should, win them all, but we've been conditioned to believe that it only sets you up for disappointment if you get your hopes too high for the Pack. This year, we're all learning to believe.

Do we dare to get our hopes up?

Not so fast. What has tripped up the Pack in the past were games against ACC opponents. Over the past five years, NC State is 14-2 in non-ACC regular season matchups, while 19-21 against ACC opponents. Fans might remember those two non-conference losses well: a 33-30 letdown against Baylor one week after upsetting second-ranked Florida State in 1998, and a 23-6 beating at the hands of ECU in the last game of 1999, to whom we graciously thank for prompting the hiring of Chuck Amato.

The last four games on NC State's 2002 schedule are against ACC teams with a combined conference record of 12-6, while the first four ACC opponents have only yielded a record of 5-15. NC State is now in the midst of a critical stretch, where the Wolfpack can prove it deserves its hype, so far only earned by admirably crushing the weak competition scheduled early in the season. Cynics will cite NC State's late collapses against Texas Tech and Duke this year as evidence of the same old Pack, but the truth is, the same old Pack would have lost those games.

In years past we got our hopes up watching the seemingly unstoppable combination of Jamie Barnette and Heisman hopeful Torry Holt tear through top-ranked defenses of teams like Florida State and Syracuse, only to see the likes of Wake Forest or UNC steal away wins and give away quality Bowl berths to Georgia Tech or UVA. We thought of all the good years ahead while watching true freshman Ray Robinson juke linemen left and right on his way to Rookie of the Year and anticipating the arrival of phenom Koren Robinson, but NC State never ascended to the level we hoped.

During Amato's tenure, however, he has steadily led the team up the steps to becoming program that can consistently play to its potential. Last year, NC State beat the teams it should have, but still lost the close conference games. Losses to UNC, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Maryland were all by a difference of no more than 10 points. This year, NC State has manhandled inferior opposition, and in the two games it did not, the Pack still found the mettle to win. Coach Amato has done more than get his team to play at its highest level each Saturday. He has gotten himself a collection of athletes with a higher ceiling for achievement than any other NC State team in recent memory.

Whatever similarities the promise of teams past may have with this year's squad will have to end with their final records. This year's NC State football team has too much athleticism and depth for fans to settle for just getting to a Bowl. NC State is capable of winning the ACC and going to a BCS Bowl game. The Pack has the highest ranked defense in the ACC, the highest scoring offense in the ACC, and the top-rated passer in the nation. Has the weak end of the conference unevenly bolstered NC State's statistics? The Pack put up 38 points in Clemson last Thursday against the best defense besides its own, and in-state rivals Wake Forest and Duke had better defenses than remaining opponents Florida State and Virginia. But the games are played for a reason, and it's still too early to say the Pack is as good as our hearts tell us.

Anyone who has followed the ACC this year knows that NC State is the league's most talented team. In the next four weeks the Wolfpack will get to prove that it's more than just the team with the most potential. This year it's time to believe that it's the best.

You can email the author at brett@struttingwolf.com

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