At this time last year, Central Florida was preparing for its first appearance in a major bowl game with a quarterback who eventually would be taken with one of the first few picks in the NFL draft.
The St. Petersburg Bowl doesn't quite provide the same national stage as the Fiesta Bowl - and Justin Holman isn't Blake Bortles - but the Knights are relishing the opportunity to face North Carolina State on Friday night at Tropicana Field.
UCF (9-3) capped a 12-1 season by beating No. 6 Baylor 52-42 behind 301 yards and three touchdowns from Bortles, who declared for the draft after his junior year and was selected third overall by Jacksonville.
Despite the departure of their star quarterback, the Knights captured their second straight American Athletic Conference title after overcoming an 0-2 start. Holman wasn't even the starter to open the season - coach George O'Leary tabbed freshman Pete DiNovo to start a season-opening 26-24 loss to Penn State in Ireland on Aug. 30 - but he passed for 2,661 yards, 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
"After a 9-3 season, we are very happy to go to the St. Petersburg Bowl," O'Leary said. "Obviously a bowl game is a great reward for the players, the program and the fan base. We are very anxious to get to St. Petersburg and enjoy the bowl and its festivities. It will be a great experience for our players and fans."
Holman threw for 274 yards on Dec. 4, and his only touchdown was a 51-yard Hail Mary to Breshad Perriman as time expired to give UCF a 32-30 road win over East Carolina and the conference title.
The victory was the fourth straight for the Knights, who will be appearing in a bowl for the fifth time in six seasons. They've won their last three bowl games.
"That's the second conference championship in a row. That's the first time in school history," O'Leary said. "That's great for the players and I'm so happy for them."
N.C. State (7-5) simply is excited to have qualified for a bowl after going 3-9 in coach Dave Doeren's first season in 2013. The Wolfpack won three of their last four, dominating Wake Forest 42-13 on Nov. 15 to become bowl eligible before routing North Carolina 35-7 on Nov. 29 to close the season.
"We are both excited and thankful for the opportunity to play in the St. Petersburg Bowl," Doeren said. "We know that the N.C. State fan base will enjoy the opportunity to support their Wolfpack in a great city.
"This is a great reward for our young team that has continued to improve over the course of the season."
The Wolfpack averaged 121.2 rushing yards in the previous six games before totaling 362 against Wake Forest and 388 against UNC. Jacoby Brissett set a school record for a quarterback by running for 167 yards and a score versus the Tar Heels.
N.C. State didn't have a 100-yard rusher in its first 10 games until Shadrach Thompson had 110 against the Demon Deacons. He followed up that effort by rushing for 161 against North Carolina.
If the Wolfpack stick with the ground game, UCF should be well prepared. The Knights ranked fifth in the nation with 97.4 rushing yards allowed per game and gave up 19 combined in their last two contests.
Central Florida ranks third in the nation in total defense with 282.8 yards allowed per game. Sophomore defensive back Jacoby Glenn tied for third in the FBS with seven interceptions.
The Wolfpack ranked 10th in the 14-team ACC with 373.1 yards allowed per game.
This will be the first meeting between the schools since Sept. 11, 2010, when Russell Wilson guided the Wolfpack to a 28-21 road win.