Now as the Wolfpack enters another season observers are trying to figure out how it's going to all come together. The foundation is there, especially on the defensive side.
O'Brien took a risk when he essentially pushed aside three-year starter Russell Wilson, who's commitment to the team had been fractured by his dabbling as a professional baseball player. Wilson has landed at Wisconsin for his final season of football eligibility.
For the Wolfpack, O'Brien has been fully comfortable with the development of quarterback Mike Glennon, who finally receives his shot to run the show.
Glennon could take advantage of an early schedule that might create an ideal confidence booster. But with Wilson playing elsewhere, Glennon will be under constant scrutiny to see how he stacks up.
"Each and every season I've come in preparing like I was going to be the starter," he said. "I think I've stepped up and been more of a leader out here. I think the guys around me are looking upon me to do something."
-- N.C. State has won 20 consecutive games against lower-division teams and so it will be an overwhelming favorite in this opener. It has been 24 years since the Wolfpack lost to a team from a lower division.
-- The Wolfpack will be turning to a new kicker (Niklas Sade) and new punter (Wil Baumann) as the season starts. This is one of coach Tom O'Brien's biggest concerns. He could take some solace in that the punting situation was unsettled throughout the 2010 season, so this isn't new territory for the Wolfpack if they encounter some glitches along the way in that category.
SERIES HISTORY: First meeting vs. Liberty.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: This is the starting debut for quarterback Mike Glennon, who had been waiting his turn behind Russell Wilson. The Wolfpack has questions at running back going into the season, particularly while it waits for Mustafa Greene to return in a few weeks from an offseason foot injury. The receiving corps isn't an established group, but there are candidates to step up and give Glennon the targets he'll need during the season.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Wolfpack should be overpowering from a physical standpoint in the opener against Liberty. But it will be worth noting how the linebackers pan out with LB Audie Cole moving from the outside to the inside in a position previously held by standout Nate Irving. The defensive backfield could be the backbone of the defense.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "They have experience now. It's not a young group. We aren't starting a kid who's never been in a football game like we did last year the first game. We had two tailbacks and neither one of them ever played in a college game last year." -- coach Tom O'Brien on the running back position, which like a year ago still tends to be a bit of a mystery going into the season.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Liberty at N.C. State, Sept. 3 -- N.C. State opens with a lower-division opponent and the Wolfpack is a heavy favorite. Unlike Russell Wilson's debut in 2008 at South Carolina, quarterback Mike Glennon should have a chance to settle in as he makes his starting debut.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Wolfpack has the right kind of opener in terms of grooming some young players. The offense will want to establish a strong rushing attack, while the defense will want to prove it deserves its impressive preseason buildup. N.C. State will want to get off to a strong start in this game so it can progress through its game plan and make the most of its opportunity to prepare for the ACC because it starts conference play a week later at Wake Forest.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
WR T.J. Graham -- He enters the season rating No. 1 among active ACC players in career kickoff returns (93) and career kickoff return yards (2,167). His role as a receiver could be most crucial until others at that position gain experience.
QB Mike Glennon -- He's set to make his first collegiate start after waiting in the wings behind Russell Wilson. The younger brother of former Virginia Tech quarterback Sean Glennon is considered to have a better pocket presence than his predecessor.
RB Tony Creecy -- He's a redshirt freshman set for his debut. It's difficult to tell how big of a role he'll have in the offense, but if you're looking for a breakout newcomer he could be the one. Coach Tom O'Brien says Creecy has the best hands of all the running backs in terms of catching the ball out of the backfield.
-- S Dean Haynes was the surprise starter at tailback last year for the opener. Since then, he has converted to the other side of the ball, joining the defensive backfield. It might be tough for him to break in for much playing time among that veteran group.
-- DT J.R. Sweezy will miss the first several games of the season after undergoing foot surgery stemming from an injury during an August practice. Earlier this summer, he was named a team co-captain.