What You Need to Know
American Athletic Conference Co-Champion UCF (9-3, 7-1 AAC) and NC State (7-5, 3-5 ACC) play on December 26 in what is perhaps the most absurdly sponsored bowl of all. The match-up is broadcast on ESPN at 8 PM.
UCF is here on the strength of its defense, which has provided cushion for an inconsistent offense. UCF fans will be looking to see whether the O Line can get its act together and whether they'll see "good Justin Holman" or "bad Justin Holman" at quarterback.
NC State boasts a balanced offense, with 2,472 rushing yards and 2,352 passing through the season. NC State has been especially buoyed especially by running back Shadrach Thornton. Thornton shares running back duties with Matt Dayes and Tony Creecy -- all three of whom are averaging 5.4 yards a carry or better this year.
What the Knights Stand to Gain
The Knights are a growing program looking to establish a pattern of sustained success. A win here means that the Knights will have earned their fourth consecutive bowl victory - with three of them coming in successive years.
Historically for the Knights, wins against now-P5 schools have been hard to come by. Last season saw the Knights beat Penn State and earn the program's all-time best win over Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. This season has seen the Knights pull out a few thrillers (ECU, I'm looking at you!) and win a share of The American. But the Knights have yet to notch a win against a P5 program, having lost on a last second field goal to Penn State and gotten crushed by Mizzou. Beating NC State would be significant for a program that's looking to grow and prove it can compete.
UCF and NC State have played twice before. In 2007, the Knights won on the road 25-23 to capture their second win over a BCS program (having previously upset Alabama in 2000). The 2007 win over NC State began with this little play by Kevin Smith, now an intern with the football program:
In 2010, a Russell Wilson-quarterbacked Wolfpack beat the Knights at Bright House Network Stadium 28-21, largely on the strength of five turnovers. Winner here takes the all-time series lead.
No Place Like "Home"
The Knights are playing just a two hour drive from campus -- and the ticket sales reflect this convenience. UCF quickly sold out its initial allotment of 6,000 tickets, followed shortly by selling out its second allotment of 1,500.
It's a bowl trip that's not only just convenient, but familiar. The Knights have played in the St. Pete Bowl twice, getting crushed by a much more physical Rutgers team in 2009, and dominating Ball State in 2012 (a game that saw Blake Bortles earn the MVP and begin to emerge on the national scene).
Observations from an Alternate Reality
NC State is led by QB Jacoby Brissett, who transferred from Florida after failing to start behind Jeff Driskel (Jeff Driskel!). That's a fun choice to scrutinize in retrospect. In 2013, while Brissett was sitting out post-transfer at NC State, Jeff Driskel broke his leg early in the season. The injury left the Gators to start back-up Tyler Murphy (now BC's QB) and, eventually, Skyler Mornhinweg. The 2014 season saw disaster-prone Driskel benched in favor of freshman Treon Harris. Abundant opportunities were there for Brissett, had he stayed a Gator.
Brissett has has been highly successful leading the Wolfpack. He's 206-for-344 for 2,344 yards with 22 TDs and 5 interceptions. So I figure that there's some alternate reality out there where Brissett is the starting quarterback of the Gators, who have probably achieved enough that Will Muschamp is still the head coach.
Intriguing Statistic of Dubious Significance
The Knights will be wearing black for the game. As Brandon Helwig recently observed, the Knights are 22-4 in black post-2004.
Ok, this is probably a statistic of no significance, but I'll take it.