CLEMSON, S.C. -- They have beaten just one major-college team with a winning record, and have played only once on the road this season. They were nearly upset, yet still embarrassed, last week at home by Marshall.
And consider this: When the 12th-ranked Wolfpack of North Carolina State (6-0, 3-0 in the ACC) meet No. 21 Clemson (3-1-1, 1-0-1) today in Death Valley, they will be seven-point underdogs.
Are the Wolfpack merely underrated overachievers, or are they college football's biggest myth? Those are questions being asked all along Tobacco Road, even in N.C. State's back yard.
"We're a good team trying to make a name for ourselves," said redshirt freshman quarterback Jeff Bender, who has filled in admirably since Terry Jordan broke his arm last month against North Carolina. "At the beginning of the year, we weren't supposed to do anything. We were just trying to get some respect."
It has come grudgingly, if at all. But with a victory over the Tigers, N.C. State can end the widespread skepticism and take another big step toward the school's first ACC football championship since 1979.
Picked during the preseason as a middle-of-the-Pack team in the conference, N.C. State's surprising start can be attributed to a stingy defense, a less-than-demanding schedule, and a weak year in the ACC.
"We're not an overpowering team," Wolfpack coach Dick Sheridan admitted last week.
Sheridan's statement came a few days before N.C. State needed two touchdowns in the final minute to erase a 14-3 deficit and beat Marshall, 15-14. The sense of relief at Carter-Finley Stadium was only overshadowed by the shock of nearly losing to a Division I-AA team.
"I think definitely it shakes our confidence, and it shakes the confidence of people in us," Sheridan said this week. "We have to prove we can play with a team like Clemson."
Said defensive back Sebastian Savage, "What happened last week is that we didn't think we had to play hard and we could still win. Marshall came in and almost kicked our butts. It opened our eyes and woke us up."
Certainly, the Wolfpack won't have the same problem today. They remember what happened at Clemson two years ago. Coming in under frighteningly similar circumstance -- unbeaten and ranked 12th, and riding an eight-game winning streak -- N.C. State was blown out, 30-10.
Clemson has had its problems lately -- losing at Georgia three weeks ago and tying Virginia at home Oct. 12 -- but Sheridan expects a tough time at Frank Howard Field, one of the true pits in college football.
"They're a lot like other Clemson teams -- impressive and very intimidating," he said. "It's a challenge for us to play them."
Aside from scoring against a defense ranked second overall in yardage allowed, the Wolfpack will have to do what they have been successful at all year: keeping their opponents off the board. The N.C. State defense is ranked first in the country in points allowed and pass defense efficiency, and fourth overall.
It's a defense that had to be rebuilt after losing six starters, three of them All-ACC players and all of them NFL draft picks. But a secondary that had to replace three of its four starters has intercepted 17 passes and the play of the line and linebackers has been solid.
"I think it's been a mature group that's responded from day one," said defensive coordinator and secondary coach Buddy Green, a 1976 N.C. State graduate who was a graduate assistant on the 1979 team. "They have fought hard for everything they have gotten."
That selfless attitude has its roots in the weight room last ZTC summer. If anything, coaches tried to tone down the aggressive nature the players took to those sessions, a trait usually encouraged on the field.
The Wolfpack has been wearing down the opposition toward the end of games. N.C. State has pulled out fourth-quarter victories in its past two games, including a 28-21 win over defending ACC and national co-champion Georgia Tech two weeks ago.
It's the opposite of what took place last year, when the Wolfpack blew fourth-quarter leads and eventually lost to Maryland, Clemson and Wake Forest in what turned out to be an overall 7-5 season.
"During the summer, all of us knew that this could be a special year," said Savage. "I think this week is a chance to prove that N.C. State is for real."
Or just a myth.
N.C. State's season
N.C. State 7, Virginia Tech 0: The Wolfpack scored with 1 second left in the first half, and intercepted the Hokies the last 3 times they had the ball.
N.C. State 47, Kent State 0: The defense pitched its second straight shutout, holding Kent State to 178 yards total offense.
N.C. State 30, Wake Forest 3: The Demon Deacons committed 6 turnovers and were held to 87 yards rushing.
N.C. State 24, North Carolina 7: The Tar Heels were held to 33 yards rushing, 171 yards total.
N.C. State 28, Georgia Tech 21: The defense accounted for 2 touchdowns, and quarterback Jeff Bender led the Wolfpack on a 12-play, 74-yard drive that ate up nearly 6 1/2 minutes late in the game.
N.C. State 15, Marshall 14: Trailing 14-3 with 3 minutes remaining, Bender engineered a 17-play, 64-yard drive in less than 2 minutes. After recovering an onside kick, the Wolfpack scored on a 34-yard pass from Bender to Charles Davenport with 24 seconds to play.