Dave Doeren, after passing on the Tennessee job back during 2017, explained the decision by saying his “heart is with NC State.” Five years later, he has given every indication that’s still the case.

Sometimes, though, it’s more prudent to listen to your head than your heart.

That time might be at hand for Doeren.

It’s not that the relationship between the coach and the school has soured. His 71 wins are the 2nd-most in program history and his current team is headed for its 8th bowl appearance within the past 9 seasons.

He’s under contract through 2026 after signing an extension during February.

And yet, even as he continues to raise the Wolfpack’s bar of expectations to new heights, it’s tough to shake the feeling that a change might be in everybody’s best interests.

As Doeren’s predecessor Tom O’Brien used to say: Unless you’re someone of Nick Saban’s stature, it’s better to change scenery every 7 to 10 years than risk wearing out your welcome by staying at a job too long.

The 1st hint Doeren might have reached that point in his tenure in Raleigh came just 3 weeks into the season when his name was among the 1st prominently mentioned as a potential replacement for Scott Frost at Nebraska.

And the signs have continued to mount with each passing week.

In some ways, Doeren has become a victim of his own success.

It’s no longer acceptable just to win 7, 8 or 9 games and earn a nice bowl trip every year. The mission now, spoken out loud rather than whispered, has become winning an ACC championship – something State hasn’t done in 43 years.

This was supposed to be the season in which the moon and stars finally aligned just right for Doeren and his Wolfpack.

They had virtually everybody back on defense and the preseason ACC Player of the Year to lead its offense in quarterback Devin Leary. They had confidence after finally beating Atlantic Division nemesis Clemson a year ago and motivation fueled by the disappointment of their Holiday Bowl cancellation.

But as usually happens when hopes are their highest at NC State, things haven’t gone exactly according to plan.

The Law of the Wolf began to kick in early with a loss at then-No. 5 Clemson. Then Leary went down with a season-ending shoulder injury, among several key players to be sidelined. The season officially came off the rails 2 weeks ago with an inexplicable Senior Night loss to lowly Boston College that ended State’s school record-tying 16-game home winning streak.

Instead of playing for a title or to accomplish their secondary goal of reaching double-digit victories for only the 2nd time in school history, the Wolfpack simply is trying to get to the finish line as it heads into Friday’s regular-season finale at rival and 18th-ranked North Carolina.

As if things couldn’t get any worse, Doeren has spent the past week dealing with threats directed at him by a former player. Joseph Boletepeli, who played on the defensive line for State in 2018-19 before transferring to Maryland, was arrested and charged with communicating threats and stalking.

“Outside of the COVID year when it was tough for everybody to be a head coach, this last week was the hardest in my career,” Doeren said. “There’s a lot going on more than coaching football.”

If that’s not enough of a sign that it’s time to move on, then the Wolfpack’s prospects moving forward should be.

It’s not that he’ll be starting from scratch after the bulk of this year’s team is lost to graduation and the NFL draft. The talent pool in the program has been deepened significantly by a strong recruiting effort over the past 3 cycles.

But while the window for ending the championship drought might not be closed, it could be years before it opens as wide for State as it did this year.

Regardless of the circumstances, a step back during 2023 is almost inevitable.

All it takes is 1 or 2 bad seasons to go from a coach being mentioned as a candidate for other jobs to 1 whose job is being offered to other candidates. Especially when the athletics director isn’t the person who hired you.

There’s no shortage of attractive opportunities available should Doeren decide to get out while the getting is good.

Besides Nebraska, the openings at Wisconsin and Colorado might be of interest to a native Midwesterner from Kansas. Arizona State also might be a possibility with several others likely to come open as the coaching carousel begins spinning Sunday.

Although Doeren’s star has lost some of its shine because of the Wolfpack’s recent struggles, his full body of work – including a 69-50 at State – still is strong enough to give him options should he decide the time has come to follow his head instead of his heart.