NASHVILLE — Four months after N.C. States season of promise stumbled at the starting line in Atlanta, the Wolfpack closes things out without any of the anticipation that accompanied that game.
Seven wins and five losses later, including that opening defeat to Tennessee that proved all too telling, the Wolfpacks season of unfulfilled expectations concludes Monday in a game that feels less like the culmination of a season and more like an appendix to it.
With Tom OBrien already fired and Dave Doeren already hired and Dana Bible serving as interim coach, it lacks the tension the opener had, the buzz that usually comes from a measuring-stick game against an SEC team. Even though the stands will be full Vanderbilt fans not only bought up their allocation of seats, but sent the ticket office back to the bowl for more the game is largely empty of compelling storylines for N.C. State fans.
It even lacks the drama that would otherwise exist with State playing against Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, Debbie Yows chosen replacement for Ralph Friedgen at Maryland but not a candidate, in her own words, last month when she was replacing OBrien at N.C. State.
The Yow-Franklin relationship had long spawned speculation that he would take over for OBrien if that day ever came, but it generated only some awkward moments at the press conference, when she acknowledged communicating with her good friend Franklin. It certainly hasnt created any this week. Maybe it would be different if OBrien were still around, but hes not, and Doeren is waiting in the wings to take over, not Franklin.
In fact, the success of Doerens former team, Northern Illinois, means this may not even be the most compelling bowl game for N.C. State fans this year. That may well be Tuesday, when the Huskies take on Florida State the only bowl-eligible team the Wolfpack beat this season.
While Doeren wont be bringing record-setting quarterback Jordan Lynch to N.C. State with him, he will be bringing some variation of Northern Illinois spread offense. Even if the personnel is different, it will be interesting to see how the schemes stack up against the Seminoles while imagining how they might look with Manny Stocker or Pete Thomas at quarterback.
(It may be worth watching Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl as well, where new N.C. State offensive coordinator Matt Canada ran a more traditional offense in his one season there after coming from Northern Illinois, although he opened things up in the 70-31 win over Nebraska in the Big Ten title game. That playbook will be on States campus as well.)
The Huskies are a two-touchdown underdog against Florida State, and very little is expected of the MAC champions. Even without Doeren on the sideline, its his team, and how the Huskies fare will unavoidably help form the first impression many Wolfpack fans have of what their program is going to look like going forward.
Still, theres this game to be played, one the ACC needs for its reputation and one the Wolfpack will certainly be motivated to win for the seniors, for Bible and the outgoing coaching staff, for OBrien.
N.C. State fans, though, may find the bowl game that really matters to the future of their program the one that offers a vision of what may be to come, not what has been is still 24 hours away.
DeCock: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947