In the afterglow of N.C. States Belk Bowl win over Louisville, here are three keys to the Wolfpacks 2012 football season:
1. Get out to a quick start
The first two games against Tennessee in Atlanta (Sept. 1) and at Connecticut (Sept. 8) will be very important and very tricky.
Although both opponents went 5-7 overall this season, Connecticut had home wins over Syracuse, Rutgers and South Florida, and Tennessee was competitive in SEC losses to Georgia, South Carolina and Florida.
UConn will return two of the most prolific players in the Big East 5-foot-6, 170-pound running back Lyle McCombs, who rushed for 1,151 yards as a redshirt freshman in 2011, and junior quarterback John McEntee, who passed for 2,110 yards.
The Volunteers will retain 6-6 quarterback Tyler Bray (17 TD passes in seven games) and all-star receiver DaRick Rogers.
Although N.C. State obviously needs to win both games in order to have a big season, a split wouldnt be catastrophic.
In ACC play, the schedule should be manageable, with road games at Maryland, Miami, UNC and Clemson. Back home at Carter-Finley Stadium, N.C. State is scheduled to get Wake Forest, Florida State, Boston College and Virginia.
The remaining two non-league foes will be South Alabama and The Citadel, both in Raleigh.
2. Improve the running game
Other than the departures of senior tight end George Bryan and senior right tackle Mikel Overgaard, the offensive line starters and primary backups return.
But its a unit that still needs to improve on run blocking.
Even though quarterback Mike Glennon produced far above expectations (31 touchdown passes, 3,054 passing yards), the 2011 team still finished 11th in the ACC in total offense (346.2 ypg) and 11th in rushing (108.2 ypg).
With 45 yards on 14 carries in the 31-24 Belk Bowl win over Louisville, junior running back James Washington finished the season with 897 yards but averaged a modest 3.97 yards per carry.
The Wolfpacks offense isnt predicated on huge rushing totals, but just 40-to-50 more ground yards per game would make a significant impact on the win total.
3. Avoid another plague of injuries
Tom OBriens five seasons at N.C. State have amounted to a nonstop patchwork drill.
Few programs anywhere have been hit so often by costly injuries, on and off the field. That pattern bordered on the surreal when punter Wil Baumann was injured and had to be replaced Tuesday night in Charlotte.
Even the one season (2010) when most of N.C. States players were generally healthy was marked by some early suspense over whether linebacker Nate Irvings could return from serious injuries suffered in a June 2009 auto accident.
But if the Wolfpacks top players return and the injury list stays short, 2012 should be OBriens best yet at N.C. State.
In the ACCs Atlantic Division, the Wolfpack still will be picked to finish behind Clemson and Florida State.
Theres a chance the ACC could undergo some realignment, though, once Syracuse and Pittsburgh are in the league fold. But regardless of how that situation plays out, N.C. State should still be among the five best teams in the ACC next season.