UCF (9-3) vs. NC State (7-5)
Dec. 26, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN)
• Reason to watch: George O’Leary has guided UCF to 31 wins over the past three seasons. The Knights lost quarterback Blake Bortles to the NFL last spring, but still managed to post nine regular-season victories behind a strong defense. UCF was also involved in one of the most dramatic finishes of the season, a 51-yard, game-winning Hail Mary from quarterback Justin Holman to receiver Breshad Perriman against East Carolina that clinched a share of the American Athletic Conference title for the Knights.
Meanwhile, NC State improved by four wins over last season thanks to strong quarterback play from Jacoby Brissett and solid production from tailback Shadrach Thornton. The Wolfpack opened the year 4-0 and led Florida State by 17 points in a Sept. 27 meeting in Raleigh, N.C., but the Seminoles came roaring back to win by 15. Though the loss prompted a four-game losing streak for Dave Doeren’s squad, the Wolfpack rallied to win three of their final four games.
• Keep an eye on: Brissett. He sat out last season after transferring from Florida, but played well in his first season for the Wolfpack. Over 12 games the 6-foot-4, 231-pound redshirt junior threw for 22 touchdowns with only five interceptions while adding 498 yards and three scores on the ground. Brissett will need to be sharp against a UCF team that led the American in pass efficiency defense and was also stingy against the run, allowing a league-best 3.08 yards per carry.
• Did you know: UCF has lost just one game in conference play over the last two seasons. The Knights have dominated American competition and may have been in the running for the Group of Five’s big-money bowl bid if not for O’Leary’s decision to start freshman quarterback Pete DiNovo instead of Holman in the season opener against Penn State and a baffling 37-29 loss at UConn on Nov. 1. Even though UCF took a step back after a 12-win effort in 2013, it’s reasonable to expect a strong showing: The Knights have won their last three bowl games.
• Final analysis: Doeren has NC State trending in the right direction, and a bowl win would provide added momentum heading into next year. Brissett and Thornton should help the Wolfpack move the ball against UCF, but the Knights rank ninth nationally in scoring defense. While UCF isn’t as formidable offensively as it was with Bortles last season, Holman and Perriman comprise a potent duo that can do damage against an NC State team that finished ninth in the ACC in pass efficiency defense. The Wolfpack’s quality finish to the fall -- which included a 35-7 throttling of in-state rival North Carolina on Nov. 29 -- is encouraging. However, UCF also closed with a flourish, winning its last four games.
• The pick: UCF 23, NC State 20