ORLANDO, Fla. (WTVD) -- When it comes to college bowl games these days, storylines often are as much about who's not playing rather than who is going to be on the field.
With many stars choosing to opt out of postseason trips in favor of entering the transfer portal or preparing for the NFL draft, matchups like Thursday's Pop-Tarts Bowl between No. 19 North Carolina State and Kansas State essentially become showcases for younger players and those older ones relishing an opportunity to take the field one more time.
"I am going to enjoy one last ride with my teammates," Kansas State All-American guard Cooper Beebe said. "There is a lot to enjoy and I'm excited to see a lot of these young guys step out for the first time and see what they can do."
The Wildcats (8-4) will be missing several key players, including quarterback Will Howard, who entered the transfer portal. They will also be without second-leading rusher Treshaun Ward and safety Kobe Savage.
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That leaves freshman quarterback Avery Johnson to lead the Wildcats against a North Carolina State defense that will be without All-American linebacker Payton Wilson, who opted out to begin preparing for the NFL draft.
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Johnson appeared in seven games during the regular season, throwing for three touchdowns and rushing for six more.
"I've always had the greatest confidence in myself to just be able to go out there and do what I'm capable of doing," Johnson said. "I have a great support system around me. The team believes in me, the coaches believe in me and it ultimately makes my job easier."
NC State (9-3) will also be integrating several new players into the starting lineup because of absences.
The Wolfpack will miss Wilson, who was the team's leading tackler as well as ACC defensive player of the year. However, there's still plenty of motivation for NC State to finish strong Thursday with the prospect of a rare 10-win season on the line.
"It's important to me," Wolfpack quarterback Brennan Armstrong said. "I think that's where it starts. Each person has to look at how important it is to them and take it out on the field."
NC State has just one 10-win season in its program history. The Wolfpack went 11-3 in 2002, including a victory in the Gator Bowl. The Wolfpack won five straight games down the stretch to get into position to finish with double-digit wins. They won two of those games largely without Armstrong in the lineup.
NC State, which is appearing in a bowl game for the third time in four seasons, is seeking its first postseason win since 2017.
Kansas State will play its first game under interim offensive coordinator Conor Riley, who was promoted from offensive line coach after Collin Klein departed for Texas A&M earlier this month.
Players are excited for Riley to get the opportunity to lead the offense, noting the enthusiasm and fire the coach is known for instilling among the team's linemen. Senior Hayden Gillum joked that one of the benefits of the promotion is the linemen won't have to hear Riley yelling on the sideline Thursday because the interim coordinator will move upstairs to work from the coaching booth.
NC State has never played Kansas State.
Kickoff is set for 5:45 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN and ESPN+.
NC State's rushing attack vs. Kansas State's run defense. The Wolfpack ranked 11th in the ACC in total offense, leaning heavily on their defense to win games. With some major absences on that side of the ball, NC State is going to have to find a way to break through against a defense that was third-stingiest in the Big 12 against the run
NC State: With Wilson skipping the bowl game to prepare for the NFL draft, the Wolfpack is counting on LB Jaylon Scott to take up the slack. Wilson led the team this season with 138 tackles, 17 1/2 tackles for loss and six sacks. Scott was pretty good, too, with 72 tackles, 5 1/2 tackles for loss and two sacks.
Kansas State: QB Johnson will be making his first start because Will Howard entered the transfer portal. Johnson appeared in seven games this year, completing 23 of 35 passes for 301 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for 225 yards and six touchdowns.
The Associated Press contributed.