NC State’s confidence rising with 3-0 start

There might be a surprise contender in the Atlantic Coast

Conference: North Carolina State.

After breezing through three nonconference games, the Wolfpack

(3-0) have joined Boston College as the only unbeaten teams in the

wide-open league.

But now it’s time to find out just how serious their candidacy

is. They open ACC play this week at defending league champion

Georgia Tech (2-1, 1-0).

”Certainly, there’s a lot more confidence in this football team

being 3-0,” coach Tom O’Brien said Monday. ”But when you look at

the challenge staring us in the face, we’re not going to wear our

arms out patting ourselves on the back.”

With a quarterback who finally appears to have found his groove

after spending the summer playing pro baseball, and a defense that

has stabilized after what seems like perpetually shaky play, this

might shape up as the best N.C. State team that O’Brien has had

since he arrived in 2007.

For a change, the Wolfpack are off to a hot start. They’ve won

their first three games for the first time since 2002, when

eventual NFL first-round draft pick Philip Rivers was under

center.

Now comes the next challenge: Winning their ACC opener. At no

point during O’Brien’s first three seasons in Raleigh has N.C.

State been above .500 in league play. They’ve started 0-3 in the

conference – or worse – every year under him.

The players say they don’t sense any overt extra pressure with

the ACC season starting, but admit it might be there underneath the

surface.

”It doesn’t really matter to us if it’s a conference game or a

regular game,” linebacker Audie Cole said. ”Either way, you

prepare the same. But we all kind of have it in the back of our

mind. We all know that we went 2-6 in the ACC last year … and

that’s something we’re not trying to repeat.”

There’s no doubt the Wolfpack have faced more resistance this

year than early in 2009, when their 3-1 start included wins over

two FCS teams.

But the competition still probably doesn’t compare to what

they’ll face in the coming weeks. After Georgia Tech comes a visit

from a Virginia Tech team that finally may have found its footing

after starting 0-2. Down the road they will take on Atlantic

Division favorite Florida State and tougher-than-expected

Clemson.

This year’s start included a rout of outmanned Western Carolina,

a win at Central Florida in which N.C. State held off a late rally

by the Knights and, just five days later, a thorough domination of

a Cincinnati team that’s transitioning to a new staff after the old

regime led them to consecutive berths in the BCS. Quarterback

Russell Wilson was one of the ACC’s players of the week after he

threw for 333 yards and three touchdowns in the victory over the

Bearcats.

Still, O’Brien says it’s too early to worry about what will

happen once ACC play gets rolling.

”I think the most important thing we can do is focus on Georgia

Tech, and that’s the only thing we have control over right now,”

O’Brien said. ”That’s been how I’ve approached things ever since

I’ve been a head football coach. I don’t worry about what’s

happened in the past, other than to learn from it, make sure that

we don’t keep making the same mistakes and that we take the

positives and build on that.

”But you can’t be worried about what your record’s going to be

after the third game of the year. You have to focus on the team

you’re playing at hand, and then it’ll all shake out one way or

another. It doesn’t matter if we’re 0-3 or 3-0. We still have to

play Georgia Tech this week.”