NC State Football: 2012 Preview
NC State is not heading to Atlanta carrying the ACC banner when they face Tennessee in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff game on Friday night at 7:30. “We’re going to play this for ourselves first, for this football team. We’re going to play it for our university, our student body and our faculty and our fans,” NC State head coach Tom O’Brien said. “The ACC falls in line after that.”
The ACC has lost early high-profile non-conference games in recent years that have made the league irrelevant later in the season without a national title contender. The ACC could really use a win over an SEC team. But O’Brien’s Wolfpack needs the early-season momentum even more.
Since 2007 (his first year at NC State), the Wolfpack has won their first game against an FBS opponent just once. That came in 2010 at Central Florida. And 2010 ended up being the Wolfpack’s best season under O’Brien (9-4). NC State has started the season with a winning record in its first five games just twice in the O’Brien era. Not coincidentally, the Wolfpack’s best start (4-1) also came in 2010. Last year, they started 2-3 (0-3 against FBS foes) but rallied with six wins in their final eight games.
Two of NC State’s five season-openers under O’Brien were against South Carolina, and NC State lost both. South Carolina was on the rise, and Tennessee was just 5-7 last season. But the Volunteers are rebuilding under third-year coach Derek Dooley. And Tennessee is still, as O’Brien put it, a brand-name program.
“It’s the third time in six years that we’ve opened with an SEC team, so it’s not like we haven’t been there before,” O’Brien said. “I think it’ll give us a great measuring stick of where we are and where we’re headed. It’ll be a big challenge but I think our kids are looking forward to the challenge.”
O’Brien knows better than anyone that the start of the season doesn’t determine how it ends. But he also knows that this team is special, and that an opportunity to beat an SEC team on national television shouldn’t be taken lightly. “It’s a great opportunity for us. We’re looking at it that way,” O’Brien said. “It’s a chance to do something special with our program and we’re looking at it in that light.”
And this team is more than capable of taking advantage of a big win to start the year. NC State’s 2012 squad is loaded with talented experience, something that’s been hard to come by in recent years, particularly defensively. State’s defensive line rotation is loaded with juniors and seniors, and the linebackers don’t have a lot of depth but are led by veteran Sterling Lucas.
But it’s the secondary that is NC State’s best unit, featuring arguably the nation’s best cornerback in David Amerson, who led the nation with 13 interceptions a year ago. A lot of the Wolfpack’s starters had to play earlier in their careers than they anticipated because of injuries, and that experience is paying off now.
The Wolfpack will also have its best offensive line under O’Brien, and quarterback Mike Glennon is coming off of a stellar end to 2011. “I think just the fact that I had been through so many experiences – in the beginning part of the season I hadn’t gone through particular situations, and then by the end of the season I had pretty much seen everything I could see,” Glennon said of his late-season surge. “The speed of the game continued to slow down and my managing of the game really started to improve.”
The only question marks are at running back, wide receiver and tight end. And O’Brien hopes to fill those roles by committee. At tight end, it was assumed junior Asa Watson would start, but he’s listed as third on the depth chart behind senior Mario Carter and junior Anthony Talbert. O’Brien says all of them will get work.
At wide receiver, Tobais Palmer is the only known commodity returning with Bryan Underwood out indefinitely. Junior Quintin Payton will start at the other wide receiver spot, and some freshmen will figure in to the mix as well. Sophomore running back Tony Creecy ended 2011 on a hot streak and after a strong spring and fall, he was named the starter. But sophomore Mustafa Greene and senior James Washington will also carry the load.
“There’s three guys, I’m not sure how they’re all going to play but they all will be in the game probably in the first half sometime on Friday night,” O’Brien said. “I think it’s a thing that as we play and go on, it will shake itself out. How it’s going to end up, it might be different certainly midyear than it is starting the year off. But those three kids all will be given opportunities and maybe the hottest guy will be the guy that plays in the second half.”
Season Prediction: 9-3 (5-3). Considering how slowly NC State has started some of its past seasons, so much depends on this first game. As O’Brien said, there are 11 more left after the Tennessee tilt, but it feels like NC State needs it to get some momentum. Win that, and the Wolfpack is likely to start out 4-0 and could be 5-0 by the time Florida State comes to town on October 6. And after that, only games at North Carolina and at Clemson remain as potential road blocks. Strange things happen in ACC football, and the Wolfpack has struggled with teams it should beat like Wake Forest and Boston College in the past. But it’s reasonable to think that if NC State wins its first game, barring a few strange happening in the ACC, the schedule sets up nicely.