Pivotal game looming for NC State's O'Brien

Full disclosure: I have a lot of respect for Tom O’Brien as a coach and a person. I appreciate his sense of humor and his bluntness, which often go hand in hand. He’s a good coach.

O'BrienO'BrienBut this is a business, and this year, O’Brien isn’t meeting the bottom line numbers: Wins. As NC State prepares to host rival North Carolina on Saturday, O’Brien is staring down what could be a career-defining game in Raleigh. NC State still needs three more wins to reach bowl eligibility, and with Atlantic Division leader Clemson still on the schedule, the best chances are against the Tar Heels, at Boston College and in the season finale against Maryland -- three teams with losing records in conference play. No game looms larger for O’Brien, though, than the rivalry game against UNC:

A win means: O’Brien goes 5-0 against the Tar Heels and helps restore faith in his leadership of the program. It gives the Wolfpack’s bowl hopes a huge boost, and it would be a historic win in the series. The Wolfpack won five in a row over the Heels from 1988-92 under coach Dick Sheridan, with two wins at home and three on the road. Although the two teams have met 100 times, State has never won three in a row at home.

A loss means: O’Brien is officially on the hot seat, if he wasn’t before. NC State drops to 1-4 in the ACC and 4-5 overall and is in a must-win situation in its final three games to get to a bowl game. O’Brien’s detractors will grow in number and noise, and athletic director Debbie Yow could have a decision to make. For now, O’Brien has her full support, but it’s rare that an athletic director would comment on personnel matters during the season. Don’t forget that Yow kept former Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen on staff after a 2-10 season.

Saturday’s result won’t provide an answer for NC State and O’Brien, but it will certainly help determine which direction they’re both heading.