North Carolina State is just a win away from a division title that seemed improbable not so long ago.
''If you asked me this time last year what we were going to be doing right now, I'd like to have said we were going to play for an ACC championship,'' linebacker Audie Cole said Monday, ''but I don't know if I'd have actually believed it.''
And yet, the 21st-ranked Wolfpack can earn a spot in the ACC championship game by winning at Maryland on Saturday. N.C. State (8-3, 5-2) has played the past month knowing it controlled its own destiny in the Atlantic Division race, making the past few weeks basically a countdown for a program that hasn't won an ACC title in 31 years.
Yet with a comeback win at rival North Carolina - the fourth straight in the series - N.C. State's players know the division crown is no longer some distant goal.
Last week, O'Brien defused the division chatter by calling it merely a ''bonus'' as his team prepared for the rivalry game. No longer.
''We've tried to keep it as a one-game championship each and every week,'' coach Tom O'Brien said. ''I think that's the only way you can do it. ... Now they'll believe me because it is the last game. It is the championship game of the Atlantic Division. We have an opportunity to do something special.''
Last week, Maryland (7-4, 4-3) was still alive in the division chase, which would have set up a winner-take-all game with the Wolfpack. But Florida State beat the Terrapins on the road to finish its league schedule at 6-2, and the No. 22 Seminoles would earn the division title if N.C. State loses this weekend.
Either N.C. State or Florida State will face No. 13 Virginia Tech - which clinched the Coastal Division crown by winning at Miami last weekend - in the ACC title game in Charlotte on Dec. 4.
N.C. State is certainly taking a difficult path to the division crown, playing three of its final four games on the road. The Wolfpack lost by one at Clemson three weeks ago, but routed Wake Forest in its home finale. Last week, N.C. State rallied from a 19-10 third-quarter deficit to beat the Tar Heels, aided by a tipped-ball touchdown catch on fourth down and an 87-yard punt return for a touchdown 2 minutes later.
''Whatever situation you're in is going to be a tough task, but these kids have been up to it,'' O'Brien said. ''They haven't been fazed by a lot of things. They understand that they're going to have to grind it out and keep playing as hard as they can and believe something good is going to happen. That's been the history of our season thus far: something good has happened for us.''
Maryland won the first three meetings against O'Brien's squad, including a 37-0 win that prevented the Wolfpack from becoming bowl eligible in the 2007 regular-season finale. It was N.C. State's first shutout loss in a dozen years.
This time, N.C. State's players know a lot more is at stake.
''We've been taking it one game at a time,'' offensive guard R.J. Mattes said, ''and now it's really one more game left.''