The talk is growing louder again about NC State. Given all the talent returning, given how close it has come to winning an ACC title before, could this be the season the Wolfpack finally puts it all together?
Some folks say yes.
So the dark horse label has been firmly affixed onto this team as it gets ready for a huge opener against Tennessee on Friday night in the Georgia Dome.
"We’ve always been a sleeper team," receiver Tobais Palmer said in a recent phone interview."I feel as though there's certain teams in the ACC that get respect, like Clemson, Florida State, those type of guys. Nobody gives us the respect we deserve, but that's OK. We use it as motivation and it helps us out. Going into the first game, I’m excited to see what this season brings."
Just look at what the Wolfpack have going into the season. The best cornerback in the nation in David Amerson, who set an ACC record with 13 interceptions last season. A veteran leader in Mike Glennon, one of the top quarterbacks in the ACC. Major depth at running back -- so much so that coach Tom O'Brien may deviate from his normal two-back rotation and play starter Tony Creecy, James Washington and Mustafa Greene against the Volunteers.
And one of the most experienced offensive lines in all of college football, with four starters who each logged over 700 snaps last season. Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said Tuesday on a media call for the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game that this is the best team NC State has had in a while, though O'Brien was a little more reserved when asked what he thinks of the team he has for 2012.
"Right now you get to the end of camp and you look forward to playing the opening game because after practicing against yourself, you're not sure what you have," O'Brien said. "A lot of the questions we might have about ourselves, when you go against an SEC powerhouse like Tennessee will be answered."
There are some question marks to be sure. The entire starting linebacker unit is new. Depth has to be developed at receiver, where projected starter Bryan Underwood is out with an injury. And starting cornerback C.J. Wilson has been held out of practice because of an NCAA eligibility issue and is not listed on the depth chart for the game. Junior Dontae Johnson is expected to start in his place.
NC State also plays in the tough Atlantic Division, featuring preseason favorite No. 7 Florida State and reigning ACC champ No. 14 Clemson, the two highest ranked teams in the ACC. For NC State to truly have a shot at the ACC title, the Wolfpack are going to have to beat both teams, something they have not done in the same season since 2002.
They have split against them the last two seasons. Last year, NC State lost to Florida State 34-0, the first time since 2008 the Wolfpack had been shutout. But after a devastating loss to Boston College, the Wolfpack went into their home game against No. 7 Clemson without anybody giving them much of a shot, mostly because they were fighting for bowl eligibility. But they pulled off the major shocker, winning 37-13.
Go back to 2010. NC State beat Florida State but lost to Clemson 14-13 after blowing a fourth-quarter lead. Still, the Wolfpack had a shot at winning the ACC heading into their season finale against Maryland. But they lost 38-31, blowing their chances. They had to watch Florida State get to the ACC championship game instead.
"For the past two years, we've had a shot at it," Palmer said. "The year before, we gave the game away losing to Maryland. Last year, we gave the league away. We've always been so close every year. We feel this year is the year everyone is going to dial in. We’ve been getting after each other. We're holding each other accountable. As long as we keep doing that, we should be a hard team to stop."