CHARLOTTE — Sporting a tan and a mountain man beard befitting a man who just spent two weeks fishing with his sons in Montana, Dave Doeren peered out at the assembled media Wednesday knowing full well this season in Raleigh will be defined by whether the 10th-year head coach and his program make a return trip to Charlotte in December. It’s nice to be talked about. It’s another thing to get over the hump.

For the better part of a decade, Dabo Swinney and Clemson have reigned imperious over the ACC. Until last season — when Dave Clawson and the Power 5’s smallest institution, Wake Forest, busted through — the Tigers had won 5 consecutive Atlantic Division championships and 7 of the past 10 ACC championships. NC State? They are still searching for the first trip to the ACC Championship Game, which originated in 2005.

No one knows that better than Doeren.

“Last year’s stats don’t win us games. Preseason magazine rankings don’t win us games. It’s fun to come to Charlotte in July with a really good football team coming back. But we want to be in Charlotte in December. We want to win that game and see where it takes us,” Doeren said Wednesday.

One of the sport’s most underappreciated, rabid fan bases couldn’t agree more.

Life at NC State is a bit different than the rest of the roundball obsessed alumni bases along Tobacco Road. Yes, NC State cares about basketball and has had its moment in the sun in that sport, too. The memory of the Cardiac Pack and their head coach Jim Valvano running around the floor looking for someone to hug after NC State secured the 1983 NCAA Championship will forever be associated with basketball lore, and it’s a treat to see Valvano vibrant and full of life every year during Jimmy V Week.

But at bottom, NC State strives to be a football school. Or it certainly is compared to its Tobacco Road brethren. It isn’t just that NC State has won 11 conference titles (7 ACC) in the sport, an impressive number most anywhere in the Power 5. It’s the atmosphere and energy around Raleigh during football season. Spend an evening at Carter-Finley Stadium and you will see what football means at NC State, where the Wolfpack faithful have built one of college football’s most intimidating environments and parlayed that into a 10-game home winning streak entering the 2022 season.

If that isn’t enough, listen to the fans grumble about the lack of an ACC championship in 43 seasons, and pay attention to the way they frame what would constitute success for the 2022 team. Is it ACC championship or bust? Not exactly. But if this Wolfpack team can’t break through, what should expectations be at NC State?

Doeren has waited a long time for this moment, and that’s a credit to the NC State administration, which has stood by for a decade and built a program with a coach who, while 64-49 in 9 years, has yet to win a division title and was on the hot seat after a 4-8 campaign and last-place Atlantic Division finish in 2019.

Doeren is 17-7 since, and there’s no telling how long he’ll get to stay in Raleigh if the Wolfpack build on Wake Forest’s accomplishment in 2021 and further break Clemson’s vise grip on the ACC this year, denying the Tigers a trip to Charlotte for the second consecutive season.

The squad is there to do it. The Wolfpack return 75% of their 2021 production, per the Football Percentage Index, including the bulk of a defense that finished the 2021 campaign ranked 19th nationally in total defense and 16th in yards allowed per play, trailing only — you guessed it, Clemson — in the ACC. The Wolfpack know they can beat Clemson too, having accomplished the feat last autumn.

The Wolfpack also have the ACC’s best football player in Devin Leary, the junior quarterback who has gone from highly-coveted recruit to benched starter to player fighting back from a horrific injury to All-ACC in 2021, when he threw for 3,433 yards and a school-record 35 touchdown to just 5 interception ratio in leading the Wolfpack to a 9-3 record. (Well, NC State counted its canceled bowl game as a 10th victory.)

If you don’t think Leary’s the best football player in the ACC, that’s fine, but don’t debate Doeren about it.

“He’s special,” Doeren told Saturday Road on Wednesday. “It’s not just the ball he throws, but he’s incredibly accurate and has a strong arm. It’s his decision-making. That’s where he impacts winning. He’s so smart. Now he’s leading the offense, taking on a leadership role off the field, and doing what a great quarterback should do. But again, it’s the decision-making and smarts. Plenty of quarterbacks know their offense. (Leary) is a guy who understands defenses. That’s what separates him. He knows tendencies and formations and blitz packages and personnel. He’s relentless in his preparation, and that’s special.”

Leary is special, and his journey, from big time recruit to benched to injured and just hoping to play again, gives him an edge that many players of his caliber lack.

“I’ve been benched,” Leary said Wednesday. “I know what that feels like. I also know what an injury can take away. It’s a privilege to practice. It’s a privilege to compete. I just enjoy that every day.”

Of course, having Leary back, an elite defense, and returning a host of perimeter playmakers has expectations sky high, inside and outside of Raleigh. As Doeren mentioned, the Wolfpack are a trendy preseason magazine pick to win the ACC, and it’s hard to find a preseason Top 25 that doesn’t have NC State inside or just outside the Top 10.

Some outsiders aren’t convinced. At least two national preseason magazines ranked the Wolfpack high but noted there’s risk there, too. An ACC offensive coordinator agreed, texting me this Wednesday morning: “Could they go 11-1 and push for a College Football Playoff spot? With Leary and that defense, sure. But they could go 7-5 and that wouldn’t stun me either. Maybe they are overrated.”

When the “overrated” label was brought to Leary’s attention, his answer was suprisingly not cliche. Usually, a player either scoffs about being called overrated and rants about disrespect or says they can’t worry about anything beyond what they can control. Leary gave neither predictbale answer. Instead, he embraced the work needed to shed the “overrated” label.

“People can think we’re overrated if they want. After all, we didn’t win the division last year,” Leary said. “Three other teams in our league won 10 games (note: Pitt and Wake Forest actually won 11) and we didn’t (officially). We have plenty more we want to accomplish we didn’t last season. But that just fuels our fire and motivates us,” Leary said.

A 9-3 season and a Holiday Bowl trip, even without the football game, was a solid 2021.  But there’s more work to do, as Leary acknowledges.

We’ll find out plenty Week 1, when NC State makes a tricky trip to raucous rival East Carolina. October 1, when the Wolfpack head to Death Valley, is circled on most any 2022 college football “must-watch” list.

A journey the Wolfpack hope includes a return trip to Charlotte in December is just getting started. Count anyone who talks to Dave Doeren and Devin Leary as believers, but it isn’t just about a coach and his quarterback.

For the first time in nearly 2 decades, the Wolfpack have the defense and supporting cast to make anyone believe. A moment a long time in the making has come for Dave Doeren and NC State.

Will they seize it?