Most of the time, N.C. State head coach Tom O'Brien looks somewhere between grizzled, frazzled and downright miserable. He isn't as far down that road as Nevada coach Chris Ault, but he's far enough. That said, he's earned the right to wear that look in recent years in Raleigh.
Those years have been, to say the least, tumultuous.
After generating a startling level of consistency at Boston College (his Eagles won either eight or nine games for seven of eight seasons from 1999-2006), O'Brien left for N.C State and struggled. His Wolfpack went just 16-21 in his first three seasons, and after a breakthrough in 2010 -- N.C. State won nine games, took home the Champs Sports Bowl title and finished 25th in the AP Poll -- he let star quarterback Russell Wilson walk (told him to, basically) in favor of four-star junior Mike Glennon. His team responded by stinking up the joint for much of 2011, putting him near the top of many "hot seat" lists, then rallying late to not only make a bowl, but win it (his eighth bowl win in 10 tries) and generate interesting momentum for 2012.
Despite the late success, it is nearly impossible to figure out how to view N.C. State in 2012. O'Brien is in no way a big-time recruiter (two-year ranking: 62nd, two spots behind Indiana and four behind Marshall, with minimal hope for major improvement in 2013), and his long-term prognosis in Raleigh is far from incredible, but he has put a speedy product on the field, and he does have former four-star recruits to work with at quarterback, running back, offensive tackle, linebacker and cornerback.
His defense got pushed around but racked up serious sack and interception totals. His defensive line and secondary return almost entirely intact, but he must replace all three starting linebackers. His offense returns almost everybody, but … the offense returns almost everybody from a unit that was not very good.
O'Brien wears the look of a coach who has no idea what to expect out of his team from moment to moment, and it is well-earned. (And at the same time, he created this team, so perhaps the daddy's-got-gallstones look has worn off on his players instead of the other way around.)
He leads a staff full of old hands (offensive coordinator Dana Bible earned his first coordinator position at San Diego State in 1986, while defensive coordinator Mike Archer was LSU's D.C. in 1985), he does what he does, and he scowls his way through 60 minutes of football. He probably won't survive another disappointing season, but his team will be one of the more experienced in college football this fall.
I am inclined to like O'Brien's Wolfpack in 2012, but then I look at their stats and remember that they just weren't very good at many things last year. I remember the strong finish, and then I remember how most of the first 11.5 games went. And I'm starting to develop the gallstones look myself. So let's just move on.
It's Glennon Or Bust for O'Brien and the Wolfpack in 2011. If the move works, then O'Brien has figured out a way around the rebuilding process and, with a post-spring two-deep that includes just 14 seniors, gotten a step ahead on what could be a great 2012 season.
If it doesn't work? Then he just voluntarily rid himself of a player who threw for 3,500 yards, rushed for 650 pre-sack yards, and wanted to finish his career in Raleigh, in favor of a guy who has thrown 52 career passes. Please be awesome, Mike Glennon. […]
Though there are still playmakers on defense, and though O'Brien clearly has a ton of confidence in Mike Glennon, it's hard not to notice that Wilson is gone, a chunk the front seven is gone, and the luck was strong enough that it could turn around in 2011.
After years as a perfectly average team under O'Brien, the Wolfpack took a significant step forward in 2010, but unless Glennon is the real deal, it's hard not to see them regressing a bit in 2011. Luckily, the schedule should allow them access to another bowl game. The non-conference schedule consists of three home cupcakes (Liberty, South Alabama, Central Michigan), four tough-but-winnable conference home games (Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Clemson, Maryland), and some winnable road games (Wake Forest, Cincinnati, Virginia) to boot. They'll have to get to seven wins because of the always-ridiculous two FCS opponents, but it will take a pretty lengthy step backwards for them not to reach that. That should keep at least some of the "You just let Wilson walk out the door??" heat off of O'Brien.
Few teams looked more drastically different than N.C. State did in September and November. Early in the season, the Wolfpack looked half-hopeless, and the "Ditch Russell Wilson" experiment looked like an incredible failure. They fell behind 27-6 to Wake Forest before rallying (and falling) in Week Two. They let South Alabama move the ball a bit too well in a 35-13 win in Week Three. They got pummeled, 44-14, on ESPN against Cincinnati. They were outgained in a 14-point win over Central Michigan in Week Six. It was an incredibly unimpressive half of a season, and it led one to believe that O'Brien was probably just about done in Raleigh,
But then, things took a turn for the better.
First Six Games: Opponents 30.1 Adj. Points per game, N.C. State 26.5 (minus-3.6)
Last Seven Games: N.C. State 24.0 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 23.8 (plus-0.2)
The offense never figured things out; the Wolfpack actually regressed on that side of the ball. But powered by a couple of spectacular performances against Virginia and North Carolina, the defense improved dramatically over the last half of the 2011 season. Improvement came in fits and starts -- beat Virginia by 14, lose to Florida State by 34, beat North Carolina by 13, lose to Boston College by four -- but at 5-5 and in need of a late run to qualify for a bowl, they whipped Clemson, 37-13 (granted, Clemson was without Sammy Watkins), then pulled off one of the most incredible rallies you'll ever see against Maryland.
After 36 minutes, a pretty awful Maryland team led N.C. State, 41-14, in Raleigh. It was a disaster. Get blown out by Maryland at home, and you probably don't survive to coach another year. But over the last 24 minutes, State outscored the Terrapins, 42-0. They outgained them, 265-68, and forced three turnovers to boot. What was looking like a 27-point loss became a 15-point win. An energized Wolfpack then took out a game Louisville squad in a wonderfully entertaining Belk Bowl. If you're a subscriber to the "late momentum leads to strong performance the next year" theory, then N.C. State is the team for you.
And if you're a subscriber to the "experience is good" theory, as most are, then you might want to give N.C. State a look as well.
Perhaps in an attempt to take pressure off of his new starting quarterback, N.C. State offensive coordinator Dana Bible (not this guy) called quite a few more run plays on standard downs in 2011. With Russell Wilson behind center in 2010, the team ran just 47 percent of the time on standard downs, but in Mike Glennon's first season, it ran 56 percent of the time.
Of course, the only way it actually works to take pressure off of the quarterback is if you actually get somewhere on the ground. N.C. State did not. The Wolfpack ranked 115th in Rushing S&P+; their two primary running backs, James Washington and Tony Creecy, combined to carry the ball 25 times per game but only averaged 3.8 yards per carry -- strangely, they rushed for 208 yards (6.5 per carry) in a loss to Georgia Tech and averaged just 3.6 per carry versus everybody else. They combined for a minus-22.3 Adj. POE, meaning they were more than three touchdowns worse than the average running back given their touches, blocking and opponents. The blocking wasn't good -- the Wolfpack ranked 85th in Adj. Line Yards -- but the running itself might have been worse.
Because opponents had no fear whatsoever of the run game, we don't really know how well Mike Glennon performed in replacing Russell Wilson. Including sacks, he averaged just 5.9 yards per pass attempt and threw 12 interceptions, but he also managed a 63 percent completion rate and 31 touchdown passes. He had some solid games -- 253 yards (7.8 per attempt) and three touchdowns versus Clemson, 264 yards (7.6 per attempt) and three touchdowns versus Louisville -- but for the most part he did what he was asked to do: either throw it really far (T.J. Graham and Tobias Palmer combined to average 15.1 yards per catch) or throw it really short (receivers Jay Smith and Steven Howard averaged 9.1 yards per catch, while Washington and Creecy were targeted 6.6 times per game on passes that almost never actually went anywhere).
Glennon was actually able to make quite a few plays on passing downs (N.C. State ranked a respectable 60th in Passing Downs S&P+), but he faced far too many passing downs to truly succeed because the Wolfpack ranked 108th in Standard Downs S&P+.
To improve in 2012, two things need to happen.
1. The run game needs to improve. Obviously. Washington and Creecy return, and four-star sophomore Mustafa Greene, who rushed for 597 yards (minus-8.5 Adj. POE) in 2010 might, too. Greene missed 2011 with a foot injury, and he ran into quite a few legal issues and missed most of spring practice as well. Meanwhile, six linemen with starting experience (112 career starts, one of the highest totals in the country) return. Improvement is likely, but "improvement" could simply mean a No. 105 ranking in Rushing S&P+. The Wolfpack could improve and still be pretty poor. And if the spring game is any indication, there is still some work to be done. Creecy "led" N.C. State running backs with 45 yards on 16 carries.
2. Glennon needs help from play-calling. N.C. State was likely to run on standard downs and pass on passing downs last year (though a lot of those passes were just conservative long handoffs to the backs), and to succeed with what is probably still a limited batch of skill position players, creativity is needed. Are Bible and company capable of delivering it? Glennon completed 63 percent of his passes and threw for 31 touchdowns despite a disproportionally high number of passing downs passes. Give him some easier throws at times, and watch his numbers improve even more.
One must give the N.C. State defense credit for this: what they did well, they did very, very well. Only Oklahoma State and Cincinnati went after the ball better than the Wolfpack, who forced 19 fumbles, picked off 27 passes, and broke up 35 more. Meanwhile, N.C. State also ranked 16th in Adj. Sack Rate (38 sacks, 91 tackles for loss) and finished games strong, improving to 12th in fourth-quarter S&P+.
N.C. State crafted an aggressive identity, and it paid off at times -- the Wolfpack completely shut down the Clemson run game, they held North Carolina to 165 total yards, and they knocked down Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater more times than one can count.
Of course, at other times it didn't work so well. Wake Forest counter-punched them on the way to 227 yards in their first three drives and a 34-27 win. Central Michigan averaged 7.5 yards per play, Georgia Tech 6.5, Cincinnati 6.3, Florida State 6.3 and Maryland 5.9. Basically, if State wasn't making a big play, it was giving one up.
Optimists and pessimists probably see very, very different things in State's 2012 defense. A pessimist is going to be quick to point out that the Wolfpack must replace three players who made at least 9.5 tackles for loss last year: linebackers Terrell Manning (14.5, with four forced fumbles and eight passes defended) and Audie Cole (13.5, with four more forced fumbles and four passes defended) and tackle Markus Kuhn (9.5). Throw in linebacker Dwayne Maddox (6.5) and tackle J.R. Sweezy (4.0), and you're looking at some terribly diminished play-making ability in the front seven.
An optimist, meanwhile, would probably point out that seven returning players made at least 3.0 tackles for loss and could produce at a similar level with more opportunities. Among the returnees are three interesting ends (Art Norman, Darryl Cato-Bishop, Brian Slay) who combined for 14.5 sacks.
And a wonderfully experienced secondary could make the most of even just a decent pass rush. Safeties Earl Wolff, Brandan Bishop and Dontae Johnson (combined: 9.5 tackles for loss, eight interceptions, eight passes broken up, four forced fumbles) all return, but that's burying the lede, of course: junior cornerback David Amerson, perhaps the best corner in the country, returns as well. Amerson was probably a little lucky in intercepting 13 passes last year (he broke up only five; typically the ratio of interceptions to PBUs is about 1-to-3 or 1-to-4), and he almost certainly won't match that total this year (his opportunities will probably be quite limited), but you don't pick off 13 passes with nothing but luck. Amerson was spectacular in both picking those passes off and in showing almost Ed Reed-esque interception return ability. He averaged 15.8 yards per return and took two back for touchdowns.
Amerson, the safeties and the ends are all of very high caliber. But it is difficult to ignore the losses of not only two tackles, but also all three starting linebackers and top backup D.J. Green, who is suspended for the season. Those four players combined for 205.0 tackles last year, 30 percent of N.C. State's total. The three players who were first-stringers in the spring game (Rickey Dowdy, Sterling Lucas, Brandon Pittman) combined for 1.5. Lucas is a 2010 role player who missed last season with a knee injury, Dowdy has played one snap in two years, and Pittman played in six games as a true freshman last fall. They could be immediately competent, but Cole and Manning in particular were far better than competent.
The Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 gives the Wolfpack a 63 percent chance of finishing bowl eligible this fall. With a schedule that features four Top 40 teams away from home, setting the bar too far above seven wins would probably be a bad idea, so let's just say that 7-5 would be peachy keen. O'Brien probably can't afford another bowl-free season, but that shouldn't be too much of a concern this year.
A lot of things needed to go right for N.C. State to end up with eight wins in 2011; not only did the Wolfpack benefit from 3.6 points' worth of turnovers luck per game last fall (one of the highest totals in the country), but they also lucked into playing Clemson when Sammy Watkins was hurt, and while their own play had something to do with it, they benefited from an incredible late-game collapse by Maryland. If either of those games goes the other way late, then N.C. State doesn't finish bowl-eligible, doesn't benefit from a lovely Belk Bowl performance ... and probably spends part of their offseason looking for a new coach.
Lucky or not, however, Tom O'Brien will field a beautifully experienced team this fall, one that should be good enough to overcome a potential turnaround in luck and still make the postseason for the third straight year. It's hard for me to see the Wolfpack making any sort of charge toward the Atlantic title, and it won't surprise anybody if they hit another slump and finish 5-7 or something; but with Amerson, Glennon and company, they should be entertaining and just good enough to keep O'Brien employed for another season.
For more on Wolfpack football, visit N.C. State blog Backing The Pack.
While we’re here, let’s watch some of the many fine college football videos from SB Nation’s Youtube channel: