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With loss of key players, Wolfpack faces challenge in Gator Bowl

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Kelvin Harmon. Germaine Pratt. Dwayne Ledford. All are gone for N.C. State. 

Harmon is one of the greatest wide receivers in program history. Pratt is, without question, the best defensive player on the team. Ledford, the offensive line coach, has guided the unit brilliantly, with Garrett Bradbury and Terronne Prescod both earning All-America first-team honors this season. 

With the Taxslayer Gator Bowl set for New Year’s Eve, the reality for the Wolfpack is there still could be more departures prior to the matchup with Texas A&M. 

Dave Doeren will conclude his sixth season as N.C. State’s head coach in a position that is unique to the program. Perhaps no one since Dick Sheridan after the 1991 campaign will enter his seventh year in charge with as much momentum. 

How much momentum will N.C. State have? 

What the Wolfpack has lost prior to the Gator Bowl is significant, but it creates chances to prove the sustenance of Doeren’s program in the coming years. 

Tom O’Brien was jettisoned in his sixth year prior to N.C. State’s Music City Bowl appearance in 2012 after a lackluster regular season where the Wolfpack’s record slipped for a third straight season. 

Chuck Amato could not maintain the momentum from the Philip Rivers era, despite having a terrific defense, and a seven-game losing streak to end the 2006 season sealed his fate after seven seasons in Raleigh. 

Mike O’Cain also lasted seven years as N.C. State’s head coach, despite never beating North Carolina. His final year was a 6-6 effort, which ended with losses to East Carolina and perhaps the most sickening defeat to the Tar Heels of them all — a 10-6 result where North Carolina overcame the loss of nearly every quarterback on its roster. 

Sheridan ended his career at N.C. State with consecutive nine-win seasons, which is where Doeren’s Wolfpack resides now. 

Only Amato has won more than nine games in a season as N.C. State’s head coach. That happened in the 2002 season, when, interestingly, the Wolfpack took on Notre Dame in its last Gator Bowl appearance. State used a 21-point second quarter to trounce the Irish 28-6 to finish the campaign 11-3 overall. 

Doeren has the potential to be one of the great coaches in N.C. State’s history. The Wolfpack is on the cusp of having one of its better two- and three-year runs in program history. 

Only Lou Holtz, with a combined 26-8-2 record from 1971-1973, along with Amato, with a three-year run of 26-13, have done better than Doeren, who would have a 26-13 mark in the last three seasons should the Wolfpack beat Texas A&M on the final calendar day of 2018. 

Harmon and Pratt will be on the sideline but, as of now, Jakobi Meyers, Emeka Emezie, and Brock Miller will be in the game. Ryan Finley, without question one of the greatest N.C. State quarterbacks ever, is also currently slated to play in the Gator Bowl. 

The offensive line still has top-tier talent, with its All-Americans who have provided peerless protection for Finley and helped the Wolfpack enjoy a third straight year with a 1,000-yard rusher after Reggie Gallaspy ran rampant against North Carolina and East Carolina in the final two games of the regular season. 

That is where N.C. State finds itself. The Wolfpack wants to throw punches with the big boys. Early departures, skipping bowl games and assistant coaches leaving for potentially better opportunities is the price to pay for creeping near elite status. 

It would be easy for N.C. State to feel sorry for itself, but if the Wolfpack wants to continue to grow, the Gator Bowl is not just another game. Ten wins on the season, proof of depth and an appealing showdown against an SEC school awaits. 

The Aggies would not be an easy opponent with a full team. The loss of two of its better players will hurt N.C. State. 

What would a win mean for N.C. State? Only time will tell, but the Wolfpack has plenty of talent and certainly all the incentive to take the game seriously. 

Dave Doeren has N.C. State as close to being elite as it has been in its history. 

Rob McLamb of Inside Pack Sports has covered N.C. State athletics and recruiting since 2012. You can follow him on Twitter @RobMcLamb.

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