ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Central Florida can finish with at least 10 wins for the fourth time in five years, while North Carolina State hopes to take another step forward under second-year coach Dave Doeren.
So for the Knights and Wolfpack, the Bitcoin Bowl on Friday night is much more than just another game. They want to make a strong statement about their programs and where they're headed.
"This is just another opportunity to go out there and prove to everyone that UCF is on the map," senior offensive lineman Torrian Wilson said. "We are a great team that works hard and fights hard. We always want to leave an impression on people, and this is just another opportunity to do that."
UCF is just a year removed from playing in a BCS bowl for the first time, turning heads with a high-scoring victory over Baylor to cap the first 12-win season in school history.
The Knights (9-3) have won nine of 10 following an 0-2 start, including a thrilling 32-30 victory over East Carolina in the regular-season finale that gave them a share of the American Athletic Conference title. UCF also won the championship in the league's inaugural season, led by quarterback Blake Bortles, the third overall pick in last spring's NFL draft.
Justin Holman has proven to be much than a capable of successor to Bortles. His dramatic Hail Mary pass to Breshad Perriman as time expired lifted the Knights over East Carolina to provide the team a shot at finishing with another 10-plus win season.
The teams have enjoyed a few days of holiday fun in the sun while visiting St. Petersburg. But they haven't lost sight of why they're in town for matchup at Tropicana Field.
"It's important to stay focused amongst one another. ... You want to enjoy the experience as well, but know in the back of your head it's a business trip," UCF receiver Rannell Hall said. "We just want to come out Friday and get the W."
That's exactly how N.C. State (7-5), which last won a bowl game in 2011, has approached the week.
It's been rollercoaster season for the Wolfpack, who won their first four games before dropping four in a row to start Atlantic Coast Conference play. There would be no repeat of 2013, when the team went 0-8 in the league in its first year under Doeren, who arrived at N.C. State after a highly successful stint at Northern Illinois.
"I think it's very important to come out strong and get our eighth win," N.C. State senior offensive tackle Rob Crisp said. "This would be big for our program. Our program is on the rise."
O'Leary is 81-59 in 11 seasons at UCF, which struggled before his arrival. The Knights have won 31 games over the past three years, seventh most in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Some things know about the Knights and Wolfpack.
UNFAMILIAR FOES: This is only the third meeting between the schools. They split the previous two, with N.C. State winning the most recent matchup 28-21 in 2010.
HOMECOMING: Brissett transferred to N.C. State from Florida. He's from West Palm Beach. The Wolfpack quarterback has thrown for 2,344 yards, 22 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He has rushed for 498 yards and three TDs.
DOMINANT 'D: UCF ranks in the top 10 nationally in fewest yards allowed per game, as well as pass efficiency, rushing and scoring defense. AAC defensive player of the year Jacoby Glenn leads the Knights with seven interceptions.
PLAYMAKERS: Brissett is surrounded by some promising talent, including running back Shadrach Thornton, who leads the Wolfpack with 811 yards and nine TDs rushing. Receiver Bo Hines has 42 receptions for 537 yards and one TD.
WE LIKE IT HERE: St. Petersburg is about two hours west of Orlando, home of the Knights. This is UCF's third appearance in a bowl game at Tropicana Field, home of major league baseball's Tampa Bay Rays. The Knights lost to Rutgers 45-24 in 2009 and beat Ball State 38-17 in 2012.