RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — This December feels a little more normal for North Carolina State.
The Wolfpack say they have a deeper appreciation for their invitation to the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl after their miserable 2013 — the only year since 2009 that they failed to make the postseason.
"It didn't really hit me until last year," senior defensive end Art Norman said Tuesday. "I took it for granted. I'd been to three straight (bowls), and then last year being at home, it hit me."
N.C. State (7-5) will face American Athletic Conference co-champion Central Florida (9-3) on Dec. 26.
"It's always a sign of progress when you're not going to be home for Christmas," coach Dave Doeren said.
The Wolfpack went 3-9 last year and failed to win a single Atlantic Coast Conference game in Doeren's first season.
They won three of them in this season's final month, and among schools from the five major conferences, only No. 6 TCU's seven-win overall improvement was better.
"Just understanding why we had the season we had," running back Shadrach Thornton said. "A lot of confusion. ... You had guys just ready to work, and work so hard that we could put ourselves in positions to make plays this year to put ourselves in a better position to go to an extra game. ... They understood what it would take in order for us to be at least three games better or four games better."
The Wolfpack closed the regular season by winning three of their last four, capped by a 35-7 rout of rival North Carolina, to validate the progress they believe they've made in two full years with their coach.
"We wanted to close gaps," Doeren said. "We beat teams on our schedule we couldn't beat last year, beaten a couple of them soundly. ... Any time you can back up what you're talking about and show the blueprint and the progress of the blueprint, it's a big deal.
"For us, this is Step 1, and a needed step in our program," he added, "and the next step is winning the bowl game."
That won't be easy. N.C. State is a slight underdog to a UCF team that has the nation's No. 3 total defense, allowing just 283 yards per game, and is fifth nationally against the run.
The Wolfpack ended the regular season with consecutive 300-yard rushing performances — after only doing that once in their first 10 games. Those big performances came against Wake Forest and against a North Carolina team that has one of the nation's worst defenses.
"It's just a testament to what our offensive line's doing against teams," quarterback Jacoby Brissett said. "They've just been taking teams' will."
Brissett pointed out a neat twist to the matchup: The West Palm Beach, Florida, native played for the Gators before transferring to N.C. State following the 2012 season, and one of the staff members on his Florida teams was Kirk Callahan — now the Knights' defensive backs coach.
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