RALEIGH — Tom O'Brien can't make his "best team in the state" claim this year, not after losing to East Carolina, but that's about the only bragging right he doesn't have right now.
Four straight wins over North Carolina.
One win away from a shot at the ACC championship.
Two wins from N.C. State's first ACC title since 1979.
And four years into his tenure, this is the first time O'Brien can not only say the Wolfpack is headed in the right direction but point to the results on the field to prove it.
So if O'Brien wanted to take a few moments Monday to reflect on how far the program has come, who could blame him?
"Year 4, this is where you want to be," O'Brien said. "We're fighting for a conference title. We have the opportunity to be a special football team in the lore of N.C. State history, not only in wins in the ACC but in total number of wins. That's where you want to be."
A year ago, N.C. State's program was in disarray. Injuries had scuttled whatever momentum the Wolfpack gained from a bowl appearance a year earlier, most notably the car accident that kept star linebacker Nate Irving out for the entire season, and the Wolfpack hit a low point when it was savaged by Wake Forest and Duke in back-to-back losses.
By the end of the year, offensive coordinator Dana Bible was in a hospital bed fighting leukemia, and O'Brien had suffered his third losing season in three years at N.C. State.
It wasn't exactly what anyone envisioned when O'Brien arrived from Boston College, where he took the Eagles to eight straight bowl games. There were plenty of vocal N.C. State fans who expected to see more progress by Year 3.
They got it in Year 4. N.C. State already has won eight games, the most since 2003, and could get to nine for the first time since 1994 with a win at Maryland on Saturday - not to mention earning a trip to the championship game in Charlotte.
"We haven't taken any shortcuts," O'Brien said. "It's been a long, hard slog. But having gone through it ... that's where your commitment to the plan comes into play."
When Debbie Yow replaced Lee Fowler as athletic director over the summer, there was legitimate speculation as to whether Yow would put up with a fourth straight losing season. After all, O'Brien wasn't her hire.
That's all moot now.
Instead of a hot seat, O'Brien's sitting on a bid to a marquee bowl. The only question is which one.
Through it all, O'Brien insisted last year's team was improving, even if the youth on defense made that nearly impossible to discern on the field at times.
"We're about a year and a half into the defense, and we're trying to recruit and get lined up and get the people in the right [positions] and understand all the nuances of it," O'Brien said last October. "We'll fight through this thing."
They fought through it.
In the win over North Carolina on Saturday, the Tar Heels were held to field goals in the red zone on three separate occasions, leaving the door open for the Wolfpack's eventual comeback.
It wasn't the first time the N.C. State defense repaid O'Brien's faith, but it came at a time when O'Brien's faith in his own plan was vindicated as well.
luke.decock@newsobserver .com, twitter.com/ LukeDeCock or 919-829-8947