Down the ACC stretch, N.C. State defeated Florida State and battled Florida State’s shadow all the way to payday.

Today is payday, kicking off about 3:30 p.m. in College Park, Md.

The Wolfpack (8-3, 5-2 ACC) can claim a spot in the conference-title game by beating Maryland (7-4, 4-3 ACC), which has been Coach Tom O’Brien’s plan all along.

“We’ve treated each ACC game as the championship game,” O’Brien said. “Now they’ll have to believe me because it is the last game. It is the championship game, of the Atlantic Division.”

Virginia Tech wrapped up the Coastal Division last Saturday, the same day resurgent State defeated North Carolina for the fourth straight time in the four-year chess match between O’Brien and Butch Davis. A while later, FSU knocked Maryland out of the Atlantic race 30-16.

No. 21 State holds the head-to-head advantage in any tiebreaker with FSU (6-2 ACC), which will close out today against Florida and needs a Wolfpack stumble to reach the championship game in Charlotte next Saturday night.

The Wolfpack, which last won the ACC in 1979, has everything to compete for in the regular-season climax.

But Maryland?

Coach Ralph Friedgen, his employment for 2011 recently guaranteed, said that the bowl-eligible Terps will show up for senior day at Byrd Stadium.

“I know that there is enough character in our team that they will get back up and play,” he said. “We’re still in contention for a lot of bowls.”

Friedgen calculated the value of a State/bowl sweep and informed the Terps of his findings: “If we were 9-4 this year, coming from 2-10, I’d say that’s a pretty big accomplishment. I said, ‘You don’t deserve to be 7-5. You worked too hard to be 7-5.’”

Quarterback Danny O’Brien, a redshirt freshman from East Forsyth High, understands the superior imagery of eight wins. “We can’t sleepwalk into this one,” he said.

The 6-3 O’Brien replaced injured starter Jamarr Robinson in late September. The Terps have won five of O’Brien’s eight starts, largely because he has passed for 1,840 yards (13th among all freshmen in ACC history) and 17 touchdowns (one of Maryland’s five best seasons regardless of class).

A key to quarterback O’Brien’s success — two sacks or fewer in nine games — might become the key issue against linebacker Nate Irving and State’s blitzing defense. Maryland’s bruised offensive line suffered two more injuries last week, drawing another freshman into the mix and forcing position switches.

Friedgen found a new hero in senior Paul Pinegar. “He has the flexibility to play tackle, center and guard without any specific practice,” Friedgen said.

The Maryland formula doesn’t seem to faze State linebacker Audie Cole. “We don’t worry about our defense,” he said. “When we look at them, we can figure out what’s going to happen before it happens.”

Maryland might have trouble knowing what Russell Wilson, the dynamic State quarterback, will do beforehand. He’s a master of the scramble, especially when tight pass coverage lures him into improvisation. Wilson ranks first in ACC passing yards (271 a game) and total offense (302), with 24 touchdown passes.

Coach O’Brien reminds people that the Terps have produced “a special year in their own right.”

The Wolfpack will travel for the third time in four weeks, a closeout month that opened with a distressing fade against Clemson.

“They believe something good’s going to happen,” O’Brien said. “That’s been the history of our season so far. Something good has happened for us.”

lrawlings@wsjournal.com