RALEIGH — N.C. State brought linebacker Audie Cole to meet with the media at its season-opening press luncheon Monday, the kind of event where Russell Wilson would often serve as the team's unofficial spokesman.
Wilson, of course, is gone, off to Wisconsin for his final year of eligibility after N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien released him from his scholarship this spring. Cole and the Wolfpack have made it a point to minimize Wilson's departure as an issue during training camp, and that extends to Wilson's debut with the Badgers tonight against UNLV in Wisconsin.
Asked if he would be watching, Cole shrugged.
"If it's on I'll probably watch it," Cole said. "I've got nothing else to do."
Wilson's first game in a Wisconsin uniform is not merely some tune-up against a cannon-fodder foe; it's the nationally televised opening game of the college football season on ESPN at 8 p.m. Before N.C. State even plays a game, Wilson will already be crashing the national radar.
If Wilson's departure from N.C. State was a divorce, for many State fans, tonight's game is going to be like running into your ex out on the town with a new love interest for the first time - uncomfortable, and impossible to ignore.
"I'll be pulling for him to succeed," said Ehren Holder, a State fan from Clayton. "I won't know how I feel about him leaving N.C. State until I hear the announcers gushing over him, or when he talks about how he feels about Wisconsin."
The abrupt departure of an all-ACC quarterback polarized State fans, with some believing Wilson's success at N.C. State earned him the right to return as the starter this fall even as he pursued a minor-league baseball career, while others line up behind coach Tom O'Brien and back his decision to turn the program over to Mike Glennon when Wilson continued to focus on baseball.
Wilson ended up at Wisconsin, to the chagrin of some State fans and the shrugged shoulders of others.
"It'll be weird, but in all honesty, I was never that into Russell Wilson," said Thomas Stokes, an N.C. State junior from Raleigh. "I was wishy-washy on him, whether I was a fan or not. If somebody like Philip Rivers back in the day had transferred, that would be different. But he's not Philip Rivers."
Nevertheless, watching Wilson play college for someone else figures to be must-see TV for State fans. At Tobacco Road Sports Café in Raleigh, where Wilson was a regular Sunday diner during his N.C. State career, reservations were already coming in for tonight as early as Wednesday morning.
"We definitely anticipate a crowd," said Tobacco Road co-owner Brian Amra. "I don't know if they'll be cheering for him or just want to see what happens."
Closer to campus, the TVs at the Players' Retreat will be tuned to ESPN, but by default, not because of Wilson. Tony Futrell, a manager at the restaurant, said he expects a typical Thursday night crowd despite "a little bit of buzz" about the quarterback's debut.
"He'll probably be a little more the focus of attention, but I don't think it'll be any more than usual," Futrell said. "I wouldn't expect any unusual turnout."
It is nevertheless an unusual situation, with a popular and successful N.C. State player putting on a different jersey on national TV tonight. For or against, supportive or angry, curious or dismissive, it's going to be hard for State fans to turn away.
That includes the man chosen to replace Wilson at quarterback, Glennon.
"Yeah, I'll watch Wisconsin play," Glennon said. "I think he'll do great out there."
Some of Wilson's former fans are hoping the same thing. Others will be gritting their teeth if he does. Either way, they'll be watching.