NC State's strong finish down the stretch, which was capped by its remarkable comeback victory over Maryland in the season finale, has landed the Wolfpack in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, N.C.
NC State battles co-Big East champions Louisville at 8 p.m. Dec. 27 at Bank of America Stadium, with the game televised by ESPN.
NC State athletic director Debbie Yow echoed what many Wolfpack players and their fans said by being thrilled to be playing in Charlotte.
"We consider Charlotte our second home actually," Yow said. "It's a terrific venue for our fans because we have so many thousands living within a four-hour radius of Charlotte.
"We made it clear that this is where we wanted to go. It's going to be a challenging game with Louisville being co-champions of the Big East. There is going to be a red at the stadium that night."
Belk Bowl executive director Will Webb joked that with NCSU coach Tom O'Brien that during the first half of the Maryland game, he was thinking his best-laid plans would get severely altered. NC State fell behind by 27 points, but rallied to win 56-41 Nov. 26 at Carter-Finley Stadium.
"I told coach that the Maryland game gave me a few palpitations because you were very high on our radar before that," Webb said. "That game was tough, but glad they made it through that."
NC State won five out of its last seven games, while Louisville won five out of its last six for both teams to finish 7-5 overall.
"You always want teams that are finishing strong and excited to be possibly coming to your city," Webb said. "We don't want teams that aren't deflated. I always tell Debbie every year, 'I hope you go to a BCS bowl, but if you don't, Charlotte is the perfect bowl for you all.'"
NC State will receive an allotment of 12,500 from the Belk Bowl, but expects to sell several more thousands tickets.
"We expect to sell out and probably do more than sell out our portion of the tickets," Yow said. "We'll probably be asking for some extras as well."
O'Brien has reached a bowl game in three out of his five seasons at NC State. The Wolfpack have gone to 26 bowls in their history, and last went to play in Charlotte in 2005, shutting out South Florida 14-0.
"We are excited about the opportunity to continue our season," O'Brien said. "Probably seven games ago, it looked like we might not be on anybody's radar. But thanks to this football team, we finally started to get healthy, got our guys back and that is what we had to do.
"The biggest perk for me is that it's a reward for their hard work. They had goals and aspirations set. They certainly wanted to be in a bowl game."
O'Brien carries a 9-2 bowl game mark, but even that doesn't tell the full picture of his postseason success. Not included is Boston College's 25-24 win over Navy in the 2006 Meineke Car Care Bowl. He had left the Eagles prior to the bowl game to take over the NC State job.
The Wolfpack also lost 29-23 to Rutgers in the 2008 Papajohns.com Bowl, which will always be remembered for when NCSU was leading 17-6 when former quarterback Russell Wilson suffered a sprained knee injury. Rutgers ended up rallying for a 29-23 victory, but O'Brien still is quick to point out his team would have won if Wilson didn't get injured.
O'Brien said he's kept the same bowl game regimen the same after changing it up in 2000. Boston College got hammered 62-28 against Colorado in the Insight.com Bowl in 1999.
"After we got killed my first year, I made some changes, and from that point on, we've followed the script the way we've done it," O'Brien said. "It has worked out well for us. There is something for the football team to want to be at the place, and wanting to win the football game. That comes back to the character to the team you have.
"Its an opportunity to send your seniors out with a win, but also an opportunity for the underclassmen to set the stage for next year. That is what we try to focus on."
O'Brien, who likes to avoid flying places if possible, also half-joked that he's glad the Wolfpack can just drive to Charlotte. NC State will also get extra practices, which is a huge help to the freshmen who redshirt this season and other young players.
"From a coaching standpoint, it's a start for next year in some respects because right now, as we practice, all we are trying to do is maintain the [older players]," O'Brien said. "In a regular practice sequence, you wouldn't get any of the redshirt freshmen or scout team guys any work at all. They are getting as much work as [the older players], and in some cases, even more."
NC State starts practicing for the bowl game this Saturday and Sunday, with each about 75 minutes long. NC State will start gearing up for the bowl game in earnest Dec. 14 when finals exams are over.
The Wolfpack will also have two open practices for the fans and media around 2:30 p.m. Dec. 17-18 at either Carter-Finley Stadium or the practice fields (still to be determined).
NC State will incorporate the last of the game week preparations during two days in Charlotte. The team arrives Dec. 22 and will have a week of social activities lined up.
NC State fifth-year senior defensive tackle J.R. Sweezy, who is a co-captain, is from nearby Mooresville, N.C. Playing his last game in a Wolfpack uniform near his hometown is a special experience.
"This will definitely feel like a home game, especially with all the red," Sweezy said. "You aren't going to know who's who. I'm very excited to play another game. Luckily it is in Charlotte, which is right down the road from where I grew up, and I can play in front of everybody."
The Wolfpack team will also get to spend Christmas together in Charlotte, which seems fitting after all the ups and downs this past season, yet the players never gave up during the adversity.
"This is who I wanted to spend Christmas with," NCSU fifth-year senior tight end and co-captain George Bryan said. "I didn't want to be home. My family wanted me to be playing football. They enjoy coming to the bowl games."
The NC State seniors will finish its careers with three bowl trips in five years. The redshirt juniors will finish the month of December with three years worth of extra bowl practices, which is another valued trait to the coaching staff in building a program.
"That is what we should be doing here, going each and every year, and that [practices] adds up," O'Brien said. "It helps you in recruiting. It helps your profile of your school. Everybody wants to go to places that win football games, play on national TV, which we always have that opportunity here because of our fans and stadium, and want to play in bowl games. That is all part of the building process to be in a championship program."