Central Florida handed East Carolina a heart-breaking loss just after Thanksgiving.
The Knights now can spoil the Christmas holidays for N.C. State.
Central Florida coach George O'Leary doesn't quite see it that way. To him, beating the Wolfpack on Friday in the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl at Tropicana Field is more about his team picking up a 10th victory and his program earning a fourth straight bowl win.
That also would mean a lot to UCF seniors such as safety Brandon Alexander.
"This is a program that has been built from the ground up and accomplished a lot," Alexander said. "Our first year we were 5-7. Now we've had three straight seasons with nine or more wins and won bowls. It's a successful program and the seniors want to go out with a victory. We're like a brotherhood and it would mean a lot."
O'Leary, 68, has been a part of a lot of football victories but perhaps never one quite like the 32-30 win at ECU on Dec. 4. Quarterback Justin Holman launched a "Hail Mary" bomb as time expired and the ball landed in the arms of junior receiver Breshad Perriman for an improbable 51-yard touchdown.
O'Leary, ever the coach, said just as important was the pass before "The Pass" - Holman's 14-yard throw to Josh Reese near midfield.
"The way everything worked out was excellent, with a great throw and catch, but it really was two outstanding plays," O'Leary said.
The victory earned the Knights (9-3 overall) a share of the American Athletic Conference title with a 7-1 league record.
"We were the defending champion, so that meant something," O'Leary said. "We weren't winning it for the first time."
A year ago, the Knights topped Baylor 52-42 in the Fiesta Bowl to cap a 12-1 season, finishing 10th in the final AP poll. UCF quarterback Blake Bortles then passed up his senior season to declare for the NFL draft, going third overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
"Replacing him was our biggest issue this year and we had some ups and downs before we solidified that position," O'Leary said.
Holman, a sophomore, has done that. It helped that he had such receivers as Perriman, a big target at 6-3 and 214 pounds who had 41 receptions for 906 yards and nine touchdowns, and is fourth nationally in yards per catch (22.1).
Running back William Stanback, another sophomore, started six games and scored 10 touchdowns. He joined Perriman as a first-team All-AAC selection.
But the real strength of the UCF team is its defense. All the numbers are impressive.
The Knights were fifth in the FBS in rushing defense (97.4 yards a game), third in total defense (282.8) and ninth in scoring defense (17.9 points). In their last three games - victories over SMU, South Florida and ECU - UCF allowed 85 total rushing yards on 69 carries.
"We held a lot of teams under their normal yards-per-game average and kept teams out of the end zone for the most part," O'Leary said.
One last win
Sophomore cornerback Jacoby Glenn was the AAC defensive player of the year and earned All-America honors after picking off seven passes. But O'Leary said the Knights had more of a strength-in-numbers unit, noting, "We have guys who complement each other well."
The UCF defense will be tested by a Wolfpack offense that rushed for 362 yards in a 42-13 victory over Wake Forest, then 388 yards in the 35-7 win over North Carolina. Jacoby Brissett set an NCSU record for quarterbacks with his 167 rushing yards against the Tar Heels, passing for three scores and running for a fourth.
"That quarterback is one of the best we've seen," Alexander said. "It's ridiculous how big and fast he is. They've got some good running backs but we've got to stop the quarterback."
O'Leary said the Knights did not actively recruit Brissett, who is from West Palm Beach, Fla., and initially went to Florida before transferring at N.C. State. But he said slowing down Brissett and running back Shadrach Thornton, who ran for 161 yards against UNC, was a must.
"I'm very impressed with their team," O'Leary said. "The things I look at is effort, the way they run the ball, the way they finish blocks, those things. They do it well."
UCF remains on NCAA probation until 2017 because of recruiting violations and has been limited to 20 scholarships a year. O'Leary, in his 11th season at UCF, said the Knights have handled the recruiting restrictions by "being smart and taking players who fit the culture of the program."
UCF's 2014 season began in Ireland with a last-second loss to Penn State. After an 0-2 start, the Knights have won nine of 10, including the thriller in Greenville.
"Coach always preaches the game isn't over until the clock is all zeroes," Alexander said. "We didn't give up on the season, either, after losing those games. Now we want one last victory."