NC State finished the 2010 season with an emphatic 23-7 victory over No. 22 West Virginia in the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, Fla., Dec. 28, improving their record to 9-4 for the year. That matched State's second best win-total in a season, and Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien hopes it will vault NCSU into the postseason top 25.
"It shows progress, and it shows people not only in our state but across the nation that our football team is definitely on the rise and headed in the right direction," O'Brien said. "I think this team is deserving to be a top 25 team at the end of the year."
The fact that there is even a debate about the Pack being a top 25 team is evidence of the turnaround in Raleigh in just a little over four months. On July 26, the ACC released the preseason predictions by the league's sportswriters. The Pack was picked fourth in the ACC's Atlantic Division, but NC State was also one of just five teams in the league not to get a single first place vote in their respective division. State was also one of the six teams not to get a vote to be conference champion.
NC State players heard the doubters, and that made 2010 even more sweeter.
"We just kept fighting," fifth year senior linebacker Nate Irving, one of three captains on this year's team, said. "A lot of people before the year even started were counting us out. After a loss or two, they wrote us off. With us being the team that we are, we just kept fighting. We just kept working hard, kept practicing hard, kept clawing and scratching for everything."
"I'm real proud of our guys," sophomore safety Brandan Bishop added. "I'm real proud of what we were able to accomplish this season. We faced a lot of adversity last year, and the season didn't go how we expected it. A lot of people in turn didn't expect much from us this year. People picked us last. People picked our secondary to be the worst in the ACC.
"I don't know how we finished as far as that goes, but I just know that we've improved tremendously, and I'm real proud of our guys and our defense as a whole. To come out and gives this kind of effort in our last game of the season and to send our seniors off with a win like this is huge."
The first hint to redshirt junior quarterback Russell Wilson that 2010 was going to be different came when he returned to the squad after spending the entire spring with NC State's baseball team and then the summer in the Colorado Rockies minor league system.
"We worked hard every single day," Wilson, another team captain, noted. "When I did come back from baseball, when I had my first practice, I realized how competitive it was going to be. We had some young guys come in, really push themselves every day. We continued that every single day, and we had some great leadership from top to bottom, from young guys to the older guys. That's really why we had a great season."
For the first time under O'Brien, NC State became a competitive football team. Not many teams at NC State can say that they led at one point in every single football game. All four losses were not decided until the final minutes. Some players, like fifth-senior receiver and tri-captain Jarvis Williams, admit they wonder what could have been.
"We missed out on a couple of opportunities," Williams stated. "We know we had a great season. We knew it could have been better."
"We always bounced back," redshirt sophomore safety Earl Wolff added. "We always fought hard every quarter, and it pays off. I'm just glad. I can say that the guys like Jarvis and Nate and Russell were great leaders, and now next year they have set a high bar for us for next year to have a better season."
Next season was a popular topic following NC State's Champs Sports Bowl triumph. While coaching at Boston College, O'Brien challenged the outgoing senior classes to do better than the previous one did. Seniors such as Irving and Williams have joined O'Brien in pressuring next year's squad to build on 2010's successes.
"They have to win at least 10 games next year, at least," Irving bluntly stated.
"We know that the underclassmen can't look back and keep it going," Williams said. "We set the bar high. We're leaving now. They got to come in the spring ready. Coaches are going to ride them. They are going to try to remember everything that they did to get into this position here, [and] to be a little bit more aggressive at it.
"They already said that they better not think no less than 10 wins next season. They already set the bar high for them. I told them to keep it going."
Wolff seemed ready to do his part.
"It's going to be hard, but we got to work out for that in the offseason," Wolff said. "Every day, starting in January, we got morning workouts. I'm going to try to step up and become more of a leader and try to get our team in the right direction early."