RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina State coach Tom O'Brien grew
up in Cincinnati, still roots for the Reds and continues to look
for recruits in southwestern Ohio.
So, yes, he's noticed what his hometown Bearcats have done in
the Big East since he left that conference and they joined it.
"When you win 33 games like they have (from 2007-09) ... it
just shows how far that program has come, and how good they really
are," O'Brien said.
The Big East's two-time BCS representatives are still trying to
prove they haven't taken a step back with the departure of coach
Brian Kelly to Notre Dame, starting Thursday night when Cincinnati
(1-1) visits the Wolfpack (2-0).
It marks the latest test of a critical four-game swing for the
Bearcats, who lost a tricky opener at Fresno State and play host to
No. 7 Oklahoma next week.
"I thought it was a great challenge but also a great
opportunity," new coach Butch Jones said of that stretch. "You
tell me another team in the country that has three games in 12 days
and has to go on the West Coast, play in a difficult environment,
play in one of the best ACC environments in N.C. State, then get
done with that, turn around and go play Oklahoma.
"It is a great challenge, especially when you are playing so
many young players."
There will be plenty of new faces on the field for both teams
when Cincinnati's defense matches up against the Wolfpack offense.
The Bearcats don't start any seniors on defense, while three of
N.C. State's starting offensive linemen had never started a game
before this season and both of the Wolfpack's two tailbacks on the
depth chart are freshmen.
The centerpieces of both offenses are dual-threat quarterbacks
with differing levels of experience.
N.C. State's Russell Wilson is in his third season as the
starter but is still trying to rediscover his football form after
spending the summer playing baseball in the Colorado Rockies'
organization. Wilson, who was 10 of 30 for 105 yards in the Central
Florida win, is "still feeling his way and getting back into the
swing of things," O'Brien said.
"You can't give football up in November and pick a ball up in
August and think that you're going to be on top of your game," he
Zach Collaros inherited the starting job at Cincinnati on a
full-time basis this season after making four starts in 2009 when
Tony Pike was injured. The junior brings more mobility to the
Bearcats' spread offense than Pike did, but while playing behind an
offensive line with two new starters, Collaros was under siege in
the opener at Fresno State.
After pulling away to rout FCS member Indiana State last week,
the Bearcats say they've regained their confidence.
"The (N.C. State) game will be a real test, an opportunity to
see where we're at," receiver Armon Binns said.
Both teams - and both conferences - could use a strong showing
in a matchup of two leagues that have disappointed so far.
The Big East got off to a rough start in Week 1, when four of
the top five teams in the league's preseason poll lost their
openers, including Cincinnati. A week later, it was the ACC's turn
to struggle with traditional powers Florida State, Miami and
Virginia Tech losing with varying degrees of embarrassment.
"It's all about first impressions. Perception is reality,"
Jones said. "We just have to take care of business. Our players
have played in big games before. When you are playing with a number
of newcomers, everything is new to them. Just because our jersey
says Cincinnati doesn't guarantee anything. You get what you earn,
you deserve victory."
If anyone in the ACC knows the Big East, it's O'Brien - who,
before coming to N.C. State, spent a decade at Boston College and
led the Eagles out of that conference. Cincinnati was one of the
teams added to replace them.
"They made the most of the opportunity they had when they had
the chance to go to the Big East," O'Brien said.