Team: NC State Woflpack
2011 W-L: 8-5 (4-4)
Head Coach: Tom O’Brien (33-30; five seasons)
Returning Starters: 14 (7 Offense, 7 Defense)
At the end of October last year, it appeared to be the end of the line for NC State coach Tom O’Brien. The Woflpack were 4-4, were just blown out 34-0 by Florida State, and had to win three of their final four games to make a bowl game. It would have been the third of his five seasons the team failed to reach the postseason — unacceptable for a school that does prioritize football (or virtually any school for that matter). But then, something clicked. O’Brien’s team went on a tear that would include a shutout of cross-state rival North Carolina, a shocking upset vs. Clemson and an enormous comeback against Maryland to close out the regular season. Now, O’Brien’s job is not only safe (for now), but his team is thinking much bigger than they had before.
On offense, the group is fueled by breakout QB Mike Glennon. The mastermind behind the late 2011 run, Glennon threw for 823 yards and 11 touchdowns over the final three games. Most notably, a six-TD performance (five passing, one rushing) to come back from 41-14 down to the Terps. This year, however, he’ll be missing top target T.J. Graham, so replacing him becomes one of the top priorities for fall practice. Luckily, he’ll have two seniors at his disposal — Tobais Palmer and Quintin Payton — both of whom played for the team last year, though in most-limited roles. Glennon is going to be looking to establish trust with these guys early, especially considering the question marks at running back. Senior James Washington still must prove he can step up into a leading role, while the status of the beleaguered Mustafa Greene is in flux again. For this offense to be at its best, it’ll demand a lot more out of the running game. Last year’s 104 yards-per-game (109th in FBS) won’t cut it, so someone obviously has to step up and make a severe course-correction.
As for the defense, the focus will obviously be on the defensive backs, specifically superstar David Amerson. Led by the ball-hawking then-sophomore (with 13 INTs), the NC State defense managed 27 picks in 2011; 11 more than the closest ACC squad. And even if offenses try and avoid Amerson, they’ll probably just run into senior safety Earl Wolff. A fierce defender in his own right, Wolff racked up an impressive 105 tackles from the secondary last year, while also grabbing three INTs of his own. So while these two standouts’ numbers are unlikely to decrease, they also have to worry about the rest of the D, which still holds quite a few question marks.
At linebacker, the team goes from having a strong, veteran group to having an inexperienced and untested one this year. The departures of Terrell Manning and Audie Cole will not be taken lightly, and the middle of the field suddenly looks wide open for the Wolfpack. This fact is expounded when you also consider the team’s lack of real answers along the defensive line either. While DEs Darryl Cato-Bishop and Brian Slay have playing time under their belts, no one really knows if they have the ability to lead a dominant pass-rush. If not, it could mean less chances for the secondary to force turnovers and more exploitation of the group’s questionable linebacker situation.
As a group, NC State’s season largely depends on a series of ‘ifs.’ If Glennon can rely on his receivers and the team develops a running game, the offense will succeed. If the pass rush actually comes to fruition and the linebackers don’t become a liability, then the defense succeeds. And obviously, if all of that happens at once, then the Wolfpack will be in for a pretty special 2012. The schedule lays out favorably, spacing difficult contests all over, most notably an early visit from FSU and a late trip to Clemson. Will the script flip this year, scoring the Pack a big win against the ‘Noles and a big loss to the Tigers? Or do they have a shot at getting past both? Lucky for us, at least we’ll know exactly what we’re getting from this team right from the onset. The Chick-fil-a kickoff game against Tennessee will be a good barometer for what type of State team we’re dealing with. Is it classic State? That is, wilting to heightened expectations and a national stage against the seventh- or eighth-best team in the SEC. Or, is this group above all that?
As stated numerous times before, this team goes as Glennon and Amerson go. Expect big seasons from both, so a big season from NC State. They may not be on the same level as Clemson and FSU, but if the cards fall right, they could come reasonably close.
Prediction: (10-2) (6-2); Sun Bowl in El Paso