The national championship game carries more meaning, but college football fans would be hard pressed to find a postseason matchup that promises more entertainment than the Orange Bowl.
“I’d be surprised if there’s not some points scored in this one,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “I don’t think it’ll be a 6-3 ball game, you know, like maybe some of the other games around. This one should be an exciting game for fans.”
Clemson (10-3) set school records for passing yards, total yards and scoring en route to its first ACC title since 1991 and first 10-win season since 1990. The Tigers improved their total offense by more than 100 yards per game from last season, rising from 88th in the nation to 29th.
The Mountaineers (9-3), meanwhile, rank seventh in the country in passing offense, tied for 17th in total offense and tied for 19th in scoring.
Both teams average more than 33 points and 440 yards per contest.
“We anticipate an exciting, high-scoring game,” Orange Bowl CEO Eric Poms said.
Tajh Boyd leads Clemson’s fast-paced offense, and is one of two dynamic quarterbacks in this game. Boyd and West Virginia’s Geno Smith combined to throw for 7,556 yards and 56 touchdowns - the edge in yardage going to Smith with Boyd tossing six more TD passes.
Smith, a Miami-area native, has already broken single-season school records for attempts (483), completions (314) and total passing yards (3,978) with one game remaining.
“They’re two tremendous quarterbacks who both have the ability to keep a play alive,” Swinney said. “They’re just going to continue to get better because they’re still relatively young.”
Allen was named first-team All-ACC and also won the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end. He has 48 receptions for 577 yards and eight touchdowns - Clemson records in all three areas at his position.
Watkins caught 77 passes for 1,153 yards and 11 TDs, while Ellington rushed for 1,062 yards and 10 scores. Clemson has a 1,000-yard rusher and receiver in the same season for just the third time in school history.
While West Virginia doesn’t have the ground game that Clemson does, the Mountaineers get by just fine with Smith - who only threw seven interceptions - and a pair of outstanding receivers.
Stedman Bailey is the team’s greatest deep threat, catching 67 passes for a school-record 1,197 yards with 11 touchdowns. Tavon Austin, often used in the slot, ranks among the national leaders with 89 receptions and averages 191.2 all-purpose yards per game - second in the country. He is one of the nation’s premier kickoff returners, averaging 26.5 yards per return.
This will be the first BCS bowl appearance for Clemson, which had its sights set on a national title after an 8-0 start that included three straight wins over ranked teams. However, a loss to Georgia Tech on Oct. 29 began a 1-3 downward spiral for the Tigers, who rebounded with a convincing 38-10 rout of then-No. 5 Virginia Tech in the ACC title game.
Boyd, who threw for three TDs and ran for a fourth against the Hokies, said he and his teammates might have gotten complacent after 8-0 start.
“You get a sense of complacency if you let the outside world affect you,” he said. “That is one of the life lessons you learn. That’s what happened. But it happened for a reason.”
Clemson has earned a trip to the Orange Bowl for the first time since Jan. 1, 1982, when a 22-15 victory over Nebraska capped a perfect season and the school’s only national championship.
“It’s been 30 years since Clemson has been in the Orange Bowl,” Swinney said. “This is the site of our program’s greatest moment and we’ve been wandering in the desert for a long time since.”
Reaching a BCS bowl didn’t seem likely for West Virginia after a loss to Louisville on Nov. 5 dropped it to 6-3, but the Mountaineers closed with three straight wins by a combined seven points, overcoming a fourth-quarter deficit in each.
That earned them a share of the Big East title and, eventually, their first Orange Bowl bid.
“Three games in a row it came down to, shoot, I think the last minute of all three games - maybe even the last couple of seconds,” first-year West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. “Regardless of what happens, you’ve just got to keep playing, you’ve got to keep playing and you’ve got to find a way to win in the end.”
Clemson is West Virginia’s fourth straight - and fourth different - ACC bowl opponent. The Mountaineers, who are seeking to improve to 3-0 in BCS bowls, lost 23-7 to North Carolina State in the 2010 Champs Sports Bowl.
The Tigers defeated West Virginia, 27-7, in the Gator Bowl on Dec. 30, 1989, in the only previous meeting between these teams.