CHARLOTTE — Shortly after Terrell Manning put a black, "Belk Bowl Champions" hat on his head to commemorate N.C. State's 31-24 bowl win over Louisville on Tuesday night, the junior linebacker started talking about next season.
Seven starters on each side of the ball, including defensive stars in Manning and cornerback David Amerson, and quarterback Mike Glennon, are scheduled to return for a Wolfpack team that won six of its final eight games to finish 8-5 in 2011.
"We've got a lot of good guys coming back, and we've got a big opening game with Tennessee, so we've got a lot to look forward to," said Manning, who had an interception and five tackles against the Cardinals.
There's plenty of time to talk about the Wolfpack's 2012 season-opener against the Volunteers on Sept. 1 in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta. There also were plenty of moments to relive late Tuesday night at Bank of America Stadium as Wolfpack players celebrated their second straight bowl win and the triumphant end of an uneven, yet ultimately fulfilling season.
Since an injury-racked 2-3 start, the Wolfpack beat an 8-4 Virginia team, rival North Carolina and ACC champion Clemson. And in its regular-season finale, it mounted a 27-point comeback - the largest in school history - to beat Maryland to get to Tuesday's bowl game.
"I told them in the locker room afterwards, I am as proud of this team as any team I've been around," fifth-year N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien said. "This has been a frustrating year for them and us, but it has certainly been a rewarding year."
N.C. State will have to replace some key contributors from this year's team. Senior receiver T.J. Graham caught seven passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns as State built a 21-10 halftime lead Tuesday. Linebacker Audie Cole, a rock in a fluctuating defensive lineup unsettled by injuries, had 9.5 tackles, including 4.5 for a loss against Louisville.
But Glennon, the fourth quarterback in school history to throw for 3,000 yards and the third with 31 touchdown passes, returns to lead an offense that should get a boost from a healthy Mustafa Greene at running back.
Greene, the team's leading rusher in 2010, missed the entire 2011 season with a foot injury.
Junior Tobais Palmer, who caught a 35-yard touchdown on Tuesday, will slide into Graham's spot at receiver. Four offensive linemen who started Tuesday will be back to block.
N.C. State's defense also will still have Amerson, whose two interceptions on Tuesday gave him an ACC-record 13 for the season. Amerson's 65-yard interception return for a touchdown put the Wolfpack up 31-10 in the third quarter.
"That interception, I don't know if I've seen any better," O'Brien said.
Amerson's second interception, with 41 seconds left, sealed the win, after freshman Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (24-of-43, 274 yards) threw for two second-half touchdowns.
State's defense will miss senior defensive linemen Markus Kuhn and J.R. Sweezy, but the bonus of so many injuries this season - 51 man-games, not including Greene or cornerback Jarvis Byrd - is that young linemen Thomas Teal, T.Y. McGill and Art Norman are ahead of schedule in their development.
With 17 wins in two seasons, only four other senior classes won more games than this Wolfpack group.
"The bar is set pretty high, but there's no telling where they can go from here," Graham said.