RALEIGH — Unfinished business.

It’s a phrase NC State coach Dave Doeren and his players have repeated often since their Holiday Bowl matchup against UCLA was canceled last December.

The Bruins’ decision to pull out of the game only hours before kickoff deprived the Wolfpack of a chance at reaching the 10-win mark for only the second time in school history.

That wasn’t the only frustrating memory from an otherwise successful 2021 season. State also came agonizingly close to winning the Atlantic Division and earning a shot at ending a four-decade drought without an ACC championship.

Making amends for both disappointments was a motivating factor for the return of virtually every starter on both sides of the ball and has driven them throughout their offseason preparations.

But now, after a 4-0 start through the nonconference schedule and a No. 10 national ranking (matching their highest since 2002), it’s time to stop talking about unfinished business and finally start taking care of business.

Win or lose, Saturday’s game against No. 5 Clemson at Death Valley won’t be the final word on who wins the division. It’s just a tasty appetizer to a football feast that promises to last deep into the season with as many as 5 teams getting a seat at the table.

As Doeren put it, “the Atlantic Division is real.”

No one knows that better than the State coach and his players. They still came up a game short last season even after beating Clemson in Raleigh. And the Atlantic is even deeper this year with the resurgence of Florida State and Syracuse’s surprising start.

That, however, doesn’t diminish the importance of this game for the ACC’s longest-suffering program.

“It’s a great opportunity against a great team in a great venue,” Doeren said Monday. “It’s everything you want as a coach and a player, and we’re excited for the opportunity.”

It’s not just an opportunity to win a big game and establish a foothold atop the division standings.

It’s far more than that.

Assuming Hurricane Ian doesn’t crash the party, Saturday’s clash of ACC titans is a chance for the Wolfpack to make a statement, one that would resound far beyond the geographic footprint of the ACC.

Taking down the league’s premier program on its home field in prime time with the entire nation watching would send out an unmistakable signal that State really is as good as it says it is and that it’s finally ready to distance itself from a long, frustrating history of living in the shadow of others.

A victory would keep the Wolfpack in control of the pursuit of their first conference title since 1979. It keeps their Playoff hopes alive. And yes, maybe even strengthens their marketability to SEC or Big Ten in the increasingly less likely event that the ACC collapses.

That’s an awful lot to be riding on a game barely halfway through the regular season.

But if there’s any team in the country equipped to handle the pressure, stop reading about the matchup on their phones and keep all the possible big picture ramifications from becoming a distraction, it’s this one.

Eleven of State’s 17 returning starters are in their 5th season of college ball and have amassed a combined 491 games of experience between them.

“We’ve got a lot of guys that have played football. They’ve been in big games. They’ve won big games,” Doeren said. “They bring a calmness to the locker room. They can be calm in the midst of a storm and get guys to settle down if they need to.

“That experience is something I value a lot because I’ve had teams that were the opposite. When you have it, ride the wave with it.”

The Wolfpack’s maturity has shown through the early part of the season.

They’ve made steady progress since opening the season with a close call at East Carolina that felt more like a loss than a win. After workmanlike-efforts against Charleston Southern and Texas Tech, they finally appeared to hit their stride last Saturday in a 44-10 rout of UConn.

Quarterback Devin Leary and his receiving corps, in particular, looked as if they’ve finally begun to find a rhythm after a 320-yard performance that saw 4 players catch touchdown passes.

Just in time.

Like State, Clemson also appears to have answered some early-season offensive questions. The Tigers come into Saturday’s showdown brimming with confidence after a double overtime win at Wake Forest that saw its quarterback, DJ Uiagalelei, throw for 5 scores and lead a late comeback.

Both teams are undefeated, ranked among the nation’s top 10 and trending in the right direction as they approach the most anticipated ACC game of the still-young season.

It’s exactly the kind of scenario the Wolfpack has dreamed about since the disappointing end to their 2021 season.

Now all they have to do is take care of their unfinished business.