RALEIGH It’s that time of the football season, when the happy and satisfied make bowl plans and the disgruntled and angry make noise. Or, as only N.C. State can, both at the same time.
On the same day N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien touted the work of the senior class that will be honored before Saturday’s game against Boston College, N.C. State fans continued to fire off missives criticizing O’Brien and his coaching staff over a season that is not yet guaranteed to be a winning one.
While fans see a 6-5 team, O’Brien sees progress, and that’s a debate that’s guaranteed to continue long after the season is over and N.C. State’s 16 seniors have moved on.
“They’ve done a lot,” O’Brien said of his seniors Monday. “They’ve helped establish a culture in a way that you’re supposed to run a program and that you can win football games. They’ve beat top-10 teams the last two years here. They have to have a winning record against ranked teams since they’ve been here.
“They’ve accomplished a lot. They didn’t have to come here and do it. They saw something and wanted to be part of it and it’s going to be tough to say goodbye to some of them.”
The undercurrent to O’Brien’s tribute was the increasing grumbling among N.C. State fans over a season that’s not only disappointing – even impartial observers expected nine or 10 wins from the Wolfpack – but impossibly frustrating, with inexplicable blowout losses (to Virginia! at home!) and that final-minute defeat to North Carolina.
Tennessee rolled over N.C. State in the opener in Atlanta, looking for all the world like a BCS bowl contender, then managed to go 0-7 in the SEC and get coach Derek Dooley fired in the process. A loss to 2-9 Boston College on Saturday would be even more infuriating.
Still, today, N.C. State is still the only team to beat Florida State this season, single-handedly blocking the Seminoles’ path to a national-title matchup with Notre Dame (although Florida might yet have something to say about that), and the Wolfpack is going to a bowl game for the fourth time in six years and third season in a row.
“They’re all going to graduate and they have a chance Saturday to win their 24th game in the last three years,” O’Brien said. “To put that in perspective, the record here for three years is 26, which has been done twice: 1970, and when Philip Rivers was done here. They can be two wins off of the best three years ever in State football. And maybe get another one in a bowl game because they have that opportunity to do that.”
Impressive, although in college football, two wins away from the record is a pretty big gap, and it may say as much about State’s football past as its present. Twenty-four wins in three years, assuming bowl appearances, leaves an average season of 8-5, putting State fans in a familiar position.
O’Brien provokes the same existential dread that Herb Sendek did: Is “good enough” good enough? Certainly, in basketball, it wasn’t. There were national-championship standards to uphold and no excuse for N.C. State not to be competing for ACC titles. Should it be different in football? Does going to bowl games and running a clean program clear the bar?
Those questions are particularly piquant this year, with the Wolfpack two or three wins south of where many fans expected to be at this point in the season.
With North Carolina and Miami out of bowl consideration, the Wolfpack is most likely headed to Orlando for the fourth time in 12 years. If that happens, it will be a successful conclusion to the season, but will it feel that way to fans?