NC State (7-5) vs. UCF (9-3) Dec. 26, 8:00, ESPN
Here's The Deal: NC State has begun to peek around the corner for second-year head coach Dave Doeren. A St. Petersburg Bowl win, though, will really get the Pack headed in the right direction.
The Wolfpack was led by one of the youngest rosters in America in 2014. And it showed once the tissue-soft non-conference schedule ended, with the team dropping four straight games in the middle of the season.
But the light began to turn on in November for State, which finished 3-1 to guarantee a winning season just a year after going 3-9. The exclamation point came in an unexpected 35-7 rout of rival North Carolina … in Chapel Hill. If the Pack can build off its most recent game, it’s going to take a massive head of steam into the 2015 campaign.
Standing in the way of an eight-win season for the Pack is UCF, which has won at least a share of the American in each of the last two seasons. Last fall, the Blake Bortles-led Knights became a national storyline. This year, however, they took a predictable step back as the offense sought consistency behind center.
UCF earned a tie for the league title on a Hail Mary to beat East Carolina on Dec. 4, and lost just once since falling to Mizzou in Week 2. But it was an inexcusable stumble. The Knights bowed to 2-10 Connecticut on Nov. 1 in a game that would have given them an outright league title for a second-straight year.
Why NC State Might Win: With momentum comes confidence, especially for a young squad. The rout of the Tar Heels meant a lot to the Pack, which it’ll carry into St. Petersburg. State has been smart with the ball, and is improving at the line of scrimmage.
The face of the program is QB Jacoby Brissett, a transfer from Florida. While still a little erratic as a passer, he’s a terrific leader, with the power running ability to throw a curveball at the UCF D.
* State isn’t just a quality running team. It’s a quality running team with a ton depth to wear down the UCF front seven. Shadrach Thornton is the best of three backs that have rushed for at least 495 yards this season. And more than just grinders between the tackles, the Pack is averaging a healthy 5.4 yards per carry. The 6-4, 231-pound Brissett will help soften the Knight defense, or he can find up-and-coming TE David Grinnage down one of the seams on play-action.
* The seasoned and athletic Pack D-line will be a handful for a UCF front that’s allowed 26 sacks. DT T.Y. McGill and ends Art Norman and Mike Rose, in particular, will disrupt the timing of young QB Justin Holman, who’s been a turnover machine in 2014.
In fact, only five FBS teams have committed more turnovers than the Knights. Holman will start a lot of drives with his back against his own end zone after All-ACC Wolfpack P Wil Baumann pins the offense deep in its own territory.
Why UCF Might Win: The Knight D is stout … again. UCF has one of the stingiest units around, ranking No. 4 nationally in yards per play. The Knights are physical, well-coached and led by all-stars at every level.
CB Jacoby Glenn and SS Clayton Geathers spearhead a secondary that’s assured of keeping NC State one-dimensional. UCF has more picks than touchdowns allowed, a major concern for Brissett and his developing corps of pass-catchers.
* UCF has been average on offense this season, but a date with the Pack could remedy many of the regular season problems. NC State has a long way to go in the back seven, where playmakers are scarce.
Holman will have a chance to finish his sophomore season on an upbeat tone, especially since his supporting cast is outstanding. The numbers might not reflect it this season, but the receiving corps, which includes homerun hitter Breshad Perriman and steady J.J. Worton, Rannell Hall and Josh Reese, is among the most talented within the Group of Five conferences.
* With Glenn and Jordan Ozerities locking down the unproven Pack receivers, defensive coordinator Tyson Summers will feel comfortable pressing up Geathers, LB Terrance Plummer and FS Brandon Alexander to support linemen Jaryl Mamea and Thomas Niles.
UCF allows just over three yards a carry to rank No. 7 in the country, and Plummer is an early candidate to be game MVP. And if NC State is unable to get the ground troops out of their blocks, it’s going to be a very long and frustrating evening for the offense.
What’s Going To Happen: NC State has a shot of delivering the mild upset, but only if it plays the way it did down the stretch.
These programs are similarly talented, but the UCF defense will be a rung above any other unit at Tropicana Field. The Knights are experienced and tenacious when facing unsure offenses, like the one it’ll see Friday. Summers will tailor an gameplan to stop the Brissett and the backs, forcing the passing game to take chances downfield.
Holman will be no better than average, but a late plunge from RB William Stanback will spur George O’Leary’s team to its tenth win of the year.
Prediction: UCF 27 … NC State 23
Line: UCF -2 o/u: 49.5