The game within the game at Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday was the speculation about the future of N.C. State football coach Tom OBrien.
With a 27-10 win over Boston College, OBriens sixth Wolfpack team finished regular season roughly as expected when preseason predictions were made way back in July 7-5 overall and 4-4 in the ACCs up-tempo Atlantic Division.
In retrospect, the Packs season was framed by an unexpectedly flat opening note in a against Tennessee and then a surprisingly miserable performance against Virginia on Nov. 3 one week after a demoralizing 43-35 loss at North Carolina.
At the opposite extreme was one-point win over Florida State in mid-season that wound up having some impact on the Bowl Championship Series games pairings.
With athletic director Debbie Yow watching on a chilly and windy afternoon, OBrien and his players delivered a methodical win that insured them of a third straight bowl appearance and the fourth since he left Boston College to succeed Chuck Amato.
OBrien will take a 40-35 (22-26 ACC) record at N.C. State into the postseason.
By comparison, OBrien is basically on the same pace as Amato and Mike OCain after six seasons. Both were fired after their seventh season.
Amato, through six seasons, was 46-28 overall and 23-25 in the ACC but then went 3-9 (2-6) in his seventh.
OCain was 35-34 overall and 23-25 in the ACC through six seasons and then was fired after going 6-6 (3-5) in 1999.
The measuring stick for N.C. State coaches since 1970 has been Dick Sheridan, who also stayed seven seasons at the school, going 52-29-3 (31-18-1) from 1986 through 1992 and getting his teams to six bowls. Health problems led Sheridan to retire after his 92 team went 9-3-1 (6-2).
OBrien, 64, has not been able to match Sheridans wins or popularity in the fan base. But a time when the ACC is sinking almost daily in football prestige and citizenship, its worth taking into account that OBrien has given State a solid, winning program while maintaining a clean public image.
With long-time offensive specialist Dana Bible on hand to work with quarterbacks, the Wolfpacks offense is almost always productive and sometimes overwhelming.
That said, the 2013 season will begin without Mike Glennon still around to throw the passes. If OBrien and Bible are back for a seventh run, the quarterbacking likely will be handled by current freshman Manny Stocker or Colorado State transfer Pete Thomas, who will have two years of eligibility. Without Glennon and four primary blockers in the offensive line, it would be a surprise if the team would be picked higher than third or fourth in the Atlantic.
Glennon, in his final home game, threw for 245 yards and three touchdowns even though Boston College (2-10, 1-7) routinely dropped eight defenders into pass coverage during the first half.
This was a huge day for our seniors, OBrien said of Glennon and his classmates. They were wired from the start.
But the stadium wasnt so wired.
The cold weather, a holiday weekend and last weeks 62-48 loss at Clemson all combined to create several empty seats and limited enthusiasm in the stadium.
Since leaving Maryland for the N.C. State job in June of 2010, Yow has been supportive of OBrien but has done so while maintaining her long-standing policy of reviewing each coach after each season.
That process will take place with OBrien this week and possibly through the bowl selection process.
While that plays out, its worth taking into account that during her years at Maryland, Yow was in the process of promoting assistant James Franklin, 40, to the Terps head coaching spot. Franklin, instead, landed the Vanderbilt job and closed regular season Saturday with a 55-21 win at Wake Forest for an 8-4 overall (5-3 SEC) regular-season finish.
Inside the SEC, theres much speculation that Franklin will wind up at Arkansas, Auburn or Tennessee if he leaves Vanderbilt.
But as the coaching carousel goes, the season is just opening, not ending.