Orange Bowl Preview

A thrilling three-day run of major bowl games comes to an end tonight as Clemson meets West Virginia in the Orange Bowl (8:30 PM ET, ESPN). After the Rose, Fiesta and Sugar Bowls all came down to the last possession and the latter two going into overtime, the Orange will a tough standard to live up to as the Monday Night Football broadcasting crew of Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski and Jon Gruden descend on Miami. Here’s a look at the path the Tigers and Mountaineers trod to get to this game and how they match up…

Clemson (9-3, won ACC Championship Game): Clemson won their first two non-conference games over in-state rivals, but the victories over Troy and Wofford were less than overwhelming. Troy had success moving the ball, and the game with Wofford was a one-point affair after three quarters. It was already apparent that the Tigers were going to be about offense, with the play of quarterback Tajh Boyd saving them from early embarrassment, while the defense was muscled for 437 yards on the ground in the two games.

As a result, it was tough to see what happened next. Clemson took on Auburn, Florida State and Virginia Tech and beat all three in rapid succession. Boyd jumped onto the list of Heisman darkhorses, while receiver Sammy Watkins emerged as one of the most exciting players in the ACC. The ground defense still left something to be desired, but the win over FSU put Clemson in control of the Atlantic Division and the win on the road at Virginia Tech, holding the Hokies to three points, sent a clear message that the Tigers were a national title contender.

Over the next three games, Boyd, Watkins and running back Andre Ellington continued to dazzle as Clemson beat Boston College, Maryland and North Carolina and averaged 50-plus points a game. They had some defensive problems against Terp quarterback C.J. Brown, who had a good day passing and a great day running and Clemson had to turn a 38-35 deficit after three quarters into a win. Because of the defensive concerns, it wasn’t seen as a shock when they lost a prime-time battle to Georgia Tech 31-17, turning the ball over four times in the process.

The national title hopes may have been gone, but a visit from Wake Forest would still settle who controlled the ACC’s Atlantic Division race down the stretch. On November 12, Clemson came out flat early on, but eventually rallied to win 31-28 on a last-second field goal. A notoriously soft Wake running game was able to gash the Tiger rush defense for 179 yards, but Boyd threw for 343 and the victory clinched the division.

With their date in the ACC Championship Game on December 3 assured and no national hopes, Clemson took two weeks off. They played embarrassing games in losing to N.C. State and South Carolina, looking completely inept in the process. If the Tigers look anything like this tonight, there’s no point in analysis, so the Notebook is throwing those two games out. I don’t like the fact that Clemson’s play suggests mailing it in, particularly in a 37-13 loss to N.C. State (the loss to South Carolina was likely more about just facing an excellent SEC defense), but there’s not much reason to think those games offer us any insight about what will happen in the Orange Bowl.

A big reason we can confidently dismiss those games is that Clemson turned the ignition back on for the ACC title game and hammered Virginia Tech 38-10, playing a mistake-free game and finding a run defense in shutting down ACC MVP David Wilson. Ellington was the rushing hero and Boyd showed precision and flawlessness.

West Virginia (9-3): Like Clemson, West Virginia didn’t dazzle anyone in winning their early non-conference games. A win over in-state rival Marshall was nice, but the Mountaineers managed to trail Norfolk State at halftime before turning it on to win 55-12 and then they barely escaped a Maryland team that was on its way to a two-win season. A subsequent loss to LSU at home doesn’t tell us a lot more, nor did an easy win over Bowling Green. The one thing that was apparent was how dependent the offense would be on quarterback Geno Smith. This wasn’t a surprise, as Smith came into the year regarded as one of the top signal-callers in the Big East, but there were no signs of a running game to help him out. In spite of this, Smith produced this revealing stat—38/65, 463 yards against the LSU defense. He threw two interceptions, but that’s still a very nice stat line against the best defense in college football.

Through the first four games of a seven-game Big East schedule, Smith continued to dazzle, piling up a couple more 400-yard games and delivering wins over defending champ UConn and Rutgers. But there was still no running game and the defense continued to be shaky, and that resulted in a blowout loss at Syracuse on a Friday night and a shootout defeat at Louisville, a team that’s normally offensively challenged.

A 2-2 in the conference, Dana Holgorsen’s team had it back to the wall and they responded with three thrilling wins down the stretch. The Mountaineers got a huge break when Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros was knocked out with broken collar bone early on their head-to-head game and it was enough for WVA to escape the Queen City with a 24-21 win that kept the Bearcats from pulling away in the Big East. A one-point win over Pitt on Black Friday was next and West Virginia ended the season with a 30-27 win over South Florida in ESPN’s final Thursday night game of the year. Smith was outstanding, the rush defense was vulnerable and nothing had really changed. The Mountaineers ended the season in a three-way tie for the conference championship with Louisville and Cincinnati. The circular head-to-head tiebreaker saw everyone split and as the higher ranked team in the BCS standings, West Virginia got this bid to play tonight. As good as Smith was all year, whichever player knocked out Collaros in Cincinnati was the real hero.

The Matchup: Everything about this game screams scoring race, one that would be on a par with the Rose Bowl (83 points) and Fiesta Bowl (76 points in regulation). Las Vegas concurs with the total being set at 62.5, a high number. But it’s apparent that Clemson is the much more balanced team, with Ellington being able to take some of the pressure off his quarterback. I can see him making some big plays in situations where they spread the field and then give him the ball up the middle and let him create. Ellington is also effective as a receiver. If he can make West Virginia’s secondary come up close, it opens things up for Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins to get down the field. On the flip side, Smith has a great tandem of receivers with Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin and it’s easy to see both of them getting 100-plus yards tonight. But top running back Dustin Garrison is out with a torn ACL, and even if he were playing, I don’t know how much it would matter. West Virginia is also a little more nicked up defensively than their counterparts. Finally we come to the fact that Clemson’s numbers in the ACC have to be given a little more credence than West Virginia’s in the Big East. If you were to ask if I’d be shocked if West Virginia won, they answer would be no. Smith is more than capable of a huge night and this program has pulled upsets in major bowls before (2005 Sugar, 2007 Fiesta). But if you were to ask if I can find a logical reason to predict it in advance, then the answer is no. As long as Clemson doesn’t go into hiding, they’ll win this game and we should know that about five minutes in.

The Notebook will live blog this game when it kicks off at 8:30 PM ET. Check the archives for the live blogs of the Rose, Fiesta and Sugar Bowls.