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2012 Orange Bowl Preview

Clemson Tigers vs West Virginia Mountaineers

If one proud January bowl game has taken it on the chin in the 14-year Bowl Championship Series era, it is the Orange Bowl. Low television ratings and lots of empty seats have marked recent editions of this Miami classic, the second-oldest bowl game in the country behind the Rose Bowl (the Sugar and Sun Bowls share the second-in-line distinction, it should be noted). This year, however, the Orange Bowl received a break, and as a result, college football fans should be in for a treat on the night of Wednesday, January 4, 2012.

The biggest problem with the Orange Bowl is that it has been tied to the Big East and Atlantic Coast Conferences, the two weakest power conferences in college football. When the Orange Bowl welcomed the old Big Eight champion to South Florida, a powerhouse team with a rabid fan base was able to make the pilgrimage to Miami, creating an electric atmosphere and a packed house. The Big East and the ACC did not sustain that momentum. Cincinnati, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, and the almost-annual presence of Virginia Tech did much to rob this game of national buzz. The Orange Bowl needed to hit the jackpot in the Big East-ACC matchup. In other words, it needed West Virginia and Clemson to finally win their conference titles in the same year and bring their devoted backers to South Beach.

This season, everything finally fell into place for the Orange Bowl, putting a permanent smile on the faces of the event’s organizers and devoted volunteers. If any bowl deserved a break, the Orange Bowl did. While the Sugar Bowl’s matchup is smothered in controversy, the Orange Bowl is a matchup that college football fans can feel good about on many levels.

Digging into this matchup, pigskin experts are mindful of West Virginia’s athleticism and talent on the edges, but they also know that Clemson can match the Mountaineers player for player… and then some. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd struggled throughout the month of November, when his team wobbled against Wake Forest and got dismantled in consecutive weeks by North Carolina State and South Carolina. However, Boyd came on strong in the ACC Championship Game and led a Tiger offense which dismantled the ACC Coastal Division champion Virginia Tech Hokies, 38-10. Boyd has so many good athletes to throw to, with Heisman-worthy talent Sammy Watkins – just a freshman – leading the way. Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, in his first year on the job, has unlocked and unleashed the full measure of the Tigers’ talents in ways that previous offensive coordinators simply failed to do. Morris just earned a substantial pay hike, paying him $1.3 million per season to call plays. That’s Gus Malzahn-level money for an offensive coordinator, a sign of just how valuable Morris has been to the Tigers this season. What benefited the Auburn Tigers in their 2010 national title run has benefited the Clemson Tigers in this Orange Bowl odyssey a season later. Clemson is finally maximizing its resources, and that’s why the program has won its first ACC title since 1991. West Virginia might play well in this game, but Clemson has thoroughly demonstrated to the nation that its best brand of ball will trump the Mountaineers’ very best brand of ball. If these two teams play at the same level, Clemson is likely going to win in Miami and claim its first Orange Bowl since 1982, when Perry Tuttle and Homer Jordan led the Tigers to the 1981 national championship in a stirring 22-15 triumph over the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Now, let’s look at this contest from a West Virginia perspective. Clemson is feeling full of itself while West Virginia struggled down the stretch to barely beat mediocre teams from Pittsburgh and South Florida. Yet, when a bowl game comes around, the emotional calculus often changes.

You will recall that in the 2007 season, the Mountaineers lost to Pittsburgh, 13-9, on the final day of the regular season. WVU was set to play in the BCS National Championship Game against Ohio State, but the stunning setback against Pittsburgh as a four-touchdown home-field favorite knocked the ‘Eers to the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma. Almost everyone in the sport felt that OU was going to blast West Virginia out of the water, but precisely when they were being counted out, the Mountaineers responded boldly. Playing with all their heart for interim coach Bill Stewart (who had replaced Rich Rodriguez just weeks earlier), the Mountaineers maxed out and drilled Oklahoma by a 48-28 score. That game could certainly serve as a template for this tilt against Clemson.

West Virginia has something to prove in this game. The Mountaineers lost to LSU earlier this season after pushing the Tigers hard through three quarters. West Virginia has the athletes to compete with any team in the country; it gave LSU a good ride, better than what most teams have delivered during this college football season. Quarterback Geno Smith has a tremendously diverse skill set – his combination of speed and arm strength will be a lot for Clemson’s defense to handle. Receivers Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin will be very hard for Clemson’s secondary to contain. This game shapes up as an old-fashioned shootout, and if that’s the case, West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen – who knows how to run a wide-open, no-holds-barred passing attack – will be right in his element. One can very easily imagine a scenario in which West Virginia – though a clear underdog – rises up to take this game by the horns.


West Virginia:

7th in passing offense – 341.8 yards per game

100th in rushing offense – 117.8 yards per game

19th in points scored – 34.9 points per game

63rd in points allowed – 26.3 points per game



21st in passing offense – 284.8 yards per game

61st in rushing offense – 155.8 yards per game

27th in points scored – 33.6 points per game

62nd in points allowed – 26.2 points per game

By: Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer

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