DEC. 26, 8 P.M. ET, TROPICANA FIELD, ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. (ESPN)
NC STATE BREAKDOWN
Season highlights: Through the first quarter of Game 5, things couldn’t have gone much better for NC State. There was the remarkable come-from-behind win against Georgia Southern, the domination of South Florida and the manhandling of Florida State. But NC State wasn’t able to preserve the 24-7 lead it built against the Seminoles, and the tailspin that followed had the team reeling. That made it all the more sweet when the Wolfpack wrapped up the regular season by winning three of four: a 24-17 win against Syracuse that ended a 12-game conference losing streak, a 42-13 win against Wake Forest that made NC State bowl eligible and a 35-7 drubbing of rival North Carolina that is Dave Doeren’s biggest win to date.
Season lowlights: The collapse against Florida State was certainly a heartbreaker. NC State had looked so dominant early that the unraveling down the stretch took its toll on the players. A week later, the Wolfpack looked listless against Clemson, falling 41-0. Two more losses followed, bringing their ACC total to 12 in a row, and fans soured quickly on the program before a late-season rebound finally showed what Doeren has been trying to build in Raleigh.
Players to watch: Quarterback Jacoby Brissett is one of three quarterbacks in the nation with 20 or more passing touchdowns, 300 or more rushing yards and no more than five interceptions. NC State’s ground game has been an underrated gem this season, led by tailbacks Shadrach Thornton and Matt Dayes. The defensive front is greatly improved with Mike Rose, who finished the regular season with 13 tackles for loss.
Motivation factor: After a winless ACC campaign last season, it might have been fair to wonder if simply getting to a bowl was enough for NC State this time around. The win against UNC in the regular-season finale was evidence to the contrary, though. Clearly the Wolfpack still have something to prove, and for a young team that proved to be incredibly resilient down the stretch, finishing the season on a high note will be incredibly important, both in terms of burnishing the credentials for the returning stars and as a sales pitch for Doeren’s recruiting class.
-- David M. Hale
Season highlights: UCF began the season 1-2 with its lone win coming against FCS Bethune-Cookman, so there wasn’t much confidence it could repeat as American champion. The season turned around on a Thursday night game against Houston when a fumble in the waning seconds gave the Knights the win. The following Thursday, UCF beat BYU in overtime, and it rode that confidence through last Saturday with a Hail Mary win that clinched a share of the conference title and gives UCF a chance at another double-digit win campaign.
Season lowlights: It was a tough start to the season for the Knights as they opened with back-to-back losses while trying to settle on a quarterback. UCF still has a lot of what-ifs it can dwell on -- beginning with "What if Justin Holman started at quarterback?" -- from the opener in Ireland against Penn State, when the Nittany Lions won on a field goal as time expired. However, the offense has been a problem all season, as the Knights are toward the bottom of the FBS in total offense.
Player to watch: The Knights have one of the best defenses in the country, and linebacker Terrance Plummer is the focal point of the unit. The 6-foot-1, 236-pound senior earned national recognition as the defensive player of the week for his effort against BYU. He recorded 17 tackles, 4.5 for loss, and forced and recovered a fumble. Plummer leads the team with 92 tackles this season.
Motivation factor: The Knights came into this season having won at least 10 games three of the past four seasons, and they are coming off a 12-win season that ended with a Fiesta Bowl trophy. They could reach that 10-win threshold again with a bowl win. That’s a significant achievement for a program that had to recover from losing quarterback Blake Bortles, who went No. 3 overall in May’s NFL draft.
-- Jared Shanker