Now or never for O’Brien’s Wolfpack

Ten years ago, N.C. State won more than nine football games in a season for the first time in school history. That club may soon have company in Wolfpack lore.

The 2002 NCSU team, led by quarterback Philip Rivers, wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, safety Terrence Holt, and linebacker Dantonio Burnette, finished 11-3 after beating Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl. Its final ranking of No. 12 is the program’s second highest in a final Associated Press poll ever, just one slot behind the 1974 Wolfpack, which was coached by Lou Holtz.

The ’02 squad took advantage of a schedule tailor-made for a memorable season, but also had playmakers all over the field. In all, 21 of its players eventually made NFL rosters.

This year’s club may not send 21 guys to the next level, but it will send a healthy handful and is coach Tom O’Brien’s best team in his six years in Raleigh. But first on the agenda is winning games, and this team is capable of reaching the 10-victory mark. And they better get it done this season, because the Pack is sure to lose the bulk of its star talent.

Fourteen starters return from last year’s 8-5 outfit that beat Louisville in the Belk Bowl. N.C. State may have the best secondary in the nation, led by perhaps the top defensive player in the land in cornerback David Amerson, a junior who led the nation with 13 interceptions a year ago, six more than anyone else in FBS.  The rest of the starters in the backfield are seniors.

The Pack starts five seniors on the offensive line, including tight end Mario Carter. The non-senior is 6-foot-7, 312-pound Robert Crisp, a fourth-year junior whom NFL eyes have been watching and waiting to see when he will put it all together. NCSU also starts a senior at tailback, wide receiver and this will be quarterback Mike Glennon’s last go around.

“I think this is our year,” said All-ACC safety Earl Wolff. “We have great players everywhere and a lot of experience. We’ve won eight and nine games in a season, now we’re ready to win 10.”

There are four keys to consider: Linebacker, where the Wolfpack welcomes three new starters; defensive line, where it can’t afford a rash of injuries and other issues like it experienced a year ago; wide receiver, where it’s a bit unproven; and quarterback. Glennon completed 62.5 percent of his pass attempts last season for 3,054 yards, 31 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, so his numbers likely won’t drop off. But he must remain healthy, as questions surround backup Tyler Brosius’ availability.

As it stands, the schedule isn’t daunting. The Wolfpack opens against Tennessee on Aug. 31 in Atlanta and visits Connecticut the following week. That could be a trap game, especially if the Pack defeats the Volunteers. NCSU then plays a pair of FCS teams in The Citadel and South Alabama, though USA is preparing to transition to the FBS level.

The ACC slate brings Florida State and Virginia to Carter-Finley Stadium but offers potentially dangers trips to Miami, North Carolina, which the Pack has beaten five straight years, and Clemson. NCSU also doesn’t play its fourth home game until Nov. 3, so there are obstacles.

But this team has the tools. It has the schedule, and it has quality leadership on both sides of the ball. Now the question is, can O’Brien deliver?

He came close to winning some Big East titles when at Boston College but fell short, even getting crushed at home by a poor Syracuse team to close the 2004 campaign, missing a chance at a BCS bowl. The Pack has been unpredictable under O’Brien. It either starts out poorly and closes strong, like the last two seasons, or it lays an egg in big, late games.

If healthy, though, this club shouldn’t do either. A 5-0 start is realistic before FSU visits Raleigh. Aside from the Seminoles, the Tar Heels and the gang from Death Valley may pose the biggest threats to a team that could be primed for a special season if the right chips fall into place.

If they do, this could be a historic season in Raleigh.