When we open the newspaper or log-on to ESPN’s website, we notice three types of programs: The powerhouses, the forces to be reckoned with, and the nuisances. The powerhouses are constantly on top, always vying for titles within their perspective conferences and gunning for BCS bids. The phrase “playing to become bowl eligible” does not exist in their seasonal vernacular. NC State may desire to be one of these programs, but things being what they are you can not have only 2 bowl eligible seasons in the last 7 and be considered a powerhouse in anything. That leaves us to determine if we identify ourselves as a force to be reckoned with or a mere nuisance to programs striving for athletic greatness. Today’s NC State vs Tennessee game provides a great opportunity to define where NC State sits in this “National Notoriety” horse race and may give evidence to where we are heading.
Two Successful Seasons Lead To Questions, Crossroads
Tom O’Brien, to his own admission and to the attention of many media outlets, has one of his most experienced teams he has ever coached. Plagued with several years of “bad luck”, as some have called it, he finally had a break out season in 2010 earning a 9-4 record including a victory against West Virginia in the Champs Bowl. This season exemplified how a legitimate force in the ACC competes, managing to stay in the hunt for an ACC Title appearance until the last week of the regular season. Then there was the 2011 season where NC State posted a respectable 8-5 record, but doubts existed over easy scheduling and the fact that 7-wins out of a 12-game season isn’t necessarily fearsome to quality opponents.
The success NC State has had over the last two season has left questions and places NC State at a crossroads. The main question as this point is what NC State is capable of doing with an experienced team with very specific position issues (i.e., linebacker). O’Brien has proven himself a masterful in-game coach, never taking high risks, but rarely making a mistake in execution either. Recruiting may be to blame for our isolated weaknesses, but this season Wolfpack fans will be more concerned with the overall product. Can a superior coaching staff really lead superbly developed, yet mediocre recruits into an ACC Title against legitimate powerhouses like Florida State and Clemson?
These questions leave NC State at the crossroads of becoming a legitimate force on the grid-iron or just another periodic nuisance to those who really are poised for greatness. Is NC State going to be the Seton Hall of football; a team that fields “decent” squads, but whose biggest impact is in knocking others out of the race for a title? Or, will NC State blossom into a program that can always be in the discussion to be the best?
Impacts of the NC State vs Tennessee Game
Tennessee is a football program who has struggled the past few seasons, but also plays an impressive in-conference schedule. They are not a bad program when you look at the product on the field. In the same period that NC State has hit rock-bottom and been trying to regain traction (since 2006), Tennessee has been bowl eligible 4 times, winning their division in 2007. While their recent history hardly qualifies them as a powerhouse, 6 national titles and a fairly consistent bowl schedule definitely qualifies Tennessee as a force, but maybe just a force that is in a rut.
This season they have a good chance to get back into the game, but first they have to meet NC State. Tennessee, and Coach Dooley, need this win for the sake of their program. If Dooley comes out soft going into a tough SEC schedule, he risks being the first coach to have back-to-back bowl ineligible teams since the last 1970′s. Tennessee will be fighting to remain a force so they are not relegated to a mere nuisance within the SEC’s high-powered line-up. If Tennessee wins, they are able to maintain face on a national stage by saying that, at the very least, they are still better than “those ACC schools”.
For NC State, this game is a massive stepping stone on a 3-season long path to relevancy. NC State has always been able to steal a win from high-quality programs like FSU and Clemson, but can we follow up success with more success? After 2011, some were left questioning whether we had or had not done exactly that. Did NC State REALLY follow up a successful 2010 season with another quality year, or were we bailed out by easy scheduling? The NC State vs Tennessee game provides the Wolfpack with a prime opportunity to prove to the world that it is more than just an ACC novelty that can produce some highlights for Sports Center and ruin a school’s season. More importantly, NC State can use this game to prove to it’s own fanbase, detractors and all, that the program has finally be brought to a position of relevancy on a national stage. O’Brien will have been able to do what Amato and O’Cain were unable to do by posting back-to-back seasons of success. While a Tennessee game is far from an entire season, it’s an important step and stage to prove where NC State is.
We sit at a crossroads between being a mere nuisance to the powers around us and becoming a force of our own that programs respect. How will we respond?
Stay tuned tonight on ESPNU for our 7:30pm kick-off.
Also keep an eye out on WolfpackWorld for a live chat during the game for those of us who couldn’t attend live in Atlanta. (UPDATE: In lieu of hosting a live chat, and some upcoming events going on in the host’s offline life, we won’t be maintaining/moderating live coverage tonight, aside from comments on Twitter. If you would like some live interaction on the game, I recommend you go visit the guys over at StateFansNation.com for their live blog). You can follow us on Twitter (@Wolfpack_World) and Like our Facebook page for updates on news, articles, and things like live chats!