There may still be a little bit of a bittersweet feeling, however, thanks to the fact that the Wolfpack spent the last Saturday of the regular season watching the ACC championship on TV instead of playing in it. If there's any comfort, it's that its bowl opponent can sympathize.
North Carolina State would have won the ACC Atlantic Division title had it beaten Maryland in that finale. West Virginia would have won the Big East outright had it beaten Connecticut in November. For both programs, the Champs Sports Bowl is nice, but not the Florida bowl they dreamed of a month ago.
But for the Wolfpack, it's a great sendoff for a senior class that hadn't had much reason to celebrate in its first three years, and a huge stepping stone for Tom O'Brien. The coach spent his first three years simply trying to qualify for any bowl game, twice failing in that objective. Coming up just short of an ACC division title is a big improvement.
A lot of that is due to the defense. Everyone expected the offense to be excellent this year, with Russell Wilson coming back for his redshirt junior season. And apart from some rust early in the season, perhaps caused by Wilson spending the summer in the Colorado Rockies' farm system instead of studying the playbook, the passing game came through. The running game was less impressive, but most of the time it didn't matter.
The defense is what let the team down a year ago, and it was much improved in 2010. North Carolina State was much more aggressive, taking it to opposing offenses instead of just hanging back and waiting for bad things to happen. That helped ensure the team would make the postseason.
If nothing else, the Wolfpack gave fans a great reason to book a trip someplace warm for the holidays.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
-- QB Russell Wilson is one of the most dynamic players in college football. He's an excellent passer with a strong arm, and he can also keep plays alive with his feet. With deep threats among the receiving corps, he's one quarterback who can't be counted out until his knee touches the ground.
-- LB Nate Irving won the Brian Piccolo Award (along with Boston College's Mark Herzlich) from the ACC, an honor given to the most courageous player in the league. But he's more than just a good comeback story, back on the field after missing all of 2009 because of injuries suffered in a car accident. He led the team with 93 total tackles and ranked fourth nationally with 19.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
-- WR Owen Spencer is the wideout to watch, particularly if he gets a step on the safety. He led the team with 57 catches for 868 yards, and when he and Russell Wilson start clicking, the passing game becomes very hard to stop.
-- Tom O'Brien has coached 10 bowl teams in his career, and although he's 0-1 in the postseason with North Carolina State, he ended his tenure at Boston College with seven consecutive bowl wins.
BOWL HISTORY: This will be the third time the Wolfpack and Mountaineers have met in a bowl game, but the first time in 35 years. North Carolina State knocked off West Virginia 49-12 in the 1972 Peach Bowl, and lost 13-10 in the 1975 Peach Bowl. Overall, North Carolina State is 12-11-1 in its 24 previous bowl trips, with the last one being a 29-23 loss to Rutgers in the 2008 Papajohns.com Bowl.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "After Plan A falls apart, you've got to go to Plan B. I think the Champs Sports Bowl is a great situation for us. It's a great game, and we know West Virginia is a great team." -- North Carolina State quarterback Russell Wilson, to the Raleigh News & Observer.
-- RB Mustafa Greene left the final regular-season game early after spraining his neck. He should be back for the bowl game.
-- K Josh Czajkowski made a quick recovery from a hamstring injury that was expected to sideline him for the season when he suffered it on Nov. 6 against Clemson. Instead, he missed only one week of action, and he looks to be at full strength heading into the Champs Sports Bowl.