North Carolina State coach Tom O'Brien calls Virginia Tech "by far the best team we've played this year. It's not even close."
Rather than debate that curious assessment — the 4-0 Wolfpack's conquests include Cincinnati and Georgia Tech, after all — let's pose a more radical question:
Yes, the notion seems preposterous. Virginia Tech opened the season against third-ranked Boise State. The Broncos remain undefeated and in the national championship discussion.
Entering Saturday's game against the visiting Hokies, the Wolfpack is ranked 23rd by the Associated Press, its first poll appearance in seven years, and hasn't won an ACC title since 1979, the conference's longest drought.
But this isn't about programs. With two Fiesta Bowl victories in the last four years, Boise State clearly is superior.
Led by dynamic players at quarterback, receiver and linebacker, N.C. State, however, might, just might, present a greater challenge to the Hokies.
Start under center, where junior Russell Wilson from Richmond Collegiate has 59 career touchdown passes and only 13 interceptions. Those aren't Kellen Moore numbers (72 and 14 for Boise), but Wilson's have come against better competition.
"He thinks he can do anything," O'Brien said Wednesday of Wilson.
Hey, when you just torched the defending conference champion, Georgia Tech, for 388 yards, three scoring passes and a rushing score, why not feel invincible?
"If we can protect him (N.C. State has allowed 11 sacks)," O'Brien said, "he's going to find guys to throw to."
His targets are difficult to miss. Tight end George Bryan is 6-foot-5, receivers Jarvis Williams and Owen Spencer 6-4 and 6-3, respectively.
That's not all. Wilson has thrown touchdowns to eight teammates and against Georgia Tech completed passes to 11. Add Wilson's mobility — he played baseball in the Colorado Rockies' system this summer — and 455 yards rushing from freshman tailbacks Mustafa Greene and Dean Haynes, and you can see why the Wolfpack is averaging 37.8 points.
But offense wasn't the primary issue of O'Brien's first three seasons at N.C. State. Defense was. The Wolfpack allowed 28.9 points per game from 2007-09, and not coincidentally went 16-21.
With senior middle linebacker Nate Irving back from an automobile accident that sidelined him throughout last season, N.C. State is yielding 18.8 points per game this year. The Wolfpack's 14 sacks rank sixth nationally, and Irving had two, not to mention 16 tackles, in the 45-28 victory against Georgia Tech.
N.C. State's quick start gives players "a little bit of confidence," O'Brien said, "because they've been successful and they have been doing things the right way, the way we want them to do it, and there's some validation there. We've done it this way, and if you're going to have a chance to succeed, you're going to have to continue to do it this way.
"The ranking is good, because it's a recognition for what they've done the last month. It really has nothing to do with the game on Saturday. The players should be happy because somebody is taking note of the hard work they've put in for the last month."
The Wolfpack's resurgence couldn't be better-timed. O'Brien, a former Boston College head coach and Virginia offensive coordinator, is working for a new athletic director, ex-Maryland AD Debbie Yow, and suddenly he's competing against a troubled rival.
Ongoing NCAA probes of academic cheating and improper agent contact at North Carolina may prove short-term annoying or long-term crippling, but presently, N.C. State should be ready to pounce in recruiting.
Plus, the Wolfpack starts only six senior starters, three each on offense and defense. Four of five offensive linemen and the entire secondary and offensive backfield have eligibility remaining.
The chore now is to handle success, and O'Brien believes his team took a step Saturday, when Georgia Tech scored two consecutive touchdowns to draw within 31-28 in the fourth quarter.
"The first concern is, you worry about your team and what their mental outlook is and certainly there was no panic whatsoever," O'Brien said. "This team has been very resilient in a lot of situations. They don't get too high, they don't get too low. They just play the game of football and that's what's good about them right now."
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime, and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP. Sign up for text alerts by texting "BIGSPORTS" to 71593