Dana Holgorsen's first season in Morgantown has been a huge success, as West Virginia went 9-3, winning three straight to close out the regular season and finish with a share of the Big East crown and its third BCS bowl bid in school history.
West Virginia is appearing in its 31st bowl game and is 13-17 in postseason play all-time. The Mountaineers have lost their last two bowl games, with a 33-21 loss to Florida State in the Gator Bowl two years ago and a 23-7 setback to NC State last season in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Clemson is appearing in its first-ever BCS Bowl game. Dabo Swinney's Tigers captured the ACC championship with a 38-10 drubbing of Virginia Tech in the title game. Clemson went 10-3 on the season, the most wins for the school since 1990 and knocked off four top-25 schools, tied for second-most in the nation this year.
The Tigers are 16-17 all-time in postseason action and have dropped four of their last five bowl games, including a 31-26 decision to South Florida in last year's Meineke Car Care Bowl. This is the team's fourth trip to the Orange Bowl. Clemson's only national title came by virtue of a 22-15 victory over Nebraska in the 1981 Orange Bowl.
Swinney is aware of the history with the venue.
"We are very excited to represent the ACC in the Discover Orange Bowl. We are especially happy to be in the Orange Bowl because it is the site of our greatest accomplishment in the history of the program 30 years ago this season.
Clemson won the only other meeting between these two programs, a 27-7 victory in 1989 in Jacksonville.
The Mountaineers possess a dynamic offense that is predicated on the pass. The team finished the season ranked seventh nationally in passing at 341.8 yards per game.
Quarterback Geno Smith had a huge season, completing 65 percent of his throws, for almost 4,000 yards (3,978), with 25 TDs and just seven INTs. The top recipients of Smith's production are Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. Smith and Austin were All-Big East First-Team members, while Bailey landed on the second-team. Austin hauled in a school-record 89 receptions this season, for 1,063 yards and four TDs. Bailey hauled in 67 balls and set school-records with 1,197 yards and 11 TDs.
Holgorsen knows he has something special in Smith.
"Geno is one of the most competitive kids I've ever been around. He cares a lot about playing and he shows up every day trying to get better."
The ground game played a distant second-fiddle in the offense, but both Dustin Garrison (5.5 ypc, six TDs) and Shawne Alston (4.4 ypc, 10 TDs) certainly kept defenses honest.
West Virginia's defense certainly wasn't as productive as the offense in 2011. The Mountaineers gave up a generous 26.2 ppg.
The unit has its share of playmakers though. Linebacker Najee Goode earned All-Big East First-Team honors after leading WVU in tackles (84), with 12.5 TFLs, four sacks, one INT and one forced fumble. The play along the defensive front is highlighted by tackle Julian Miller (11.0 TFLs, six sacks) and defensive end Bruce Ivin (14 TFLs, 7.5 sacks).
The Tigers bring their own offensive firepower into this contest and have certainly displayed big play ability as well. The team is averaging just over 440 yards of total offense per game, with a great mix of the run (155.8 ypg) and the pass (284.8 ypg).
The emergence of sophomore quarterback Tahj Boyd is the main reason that Clemson is playing in a BCS bowl game. The Clemson gunslinger has completed 60.5 percent of his passes this season, for 3,578 yards, with 31 TDs. A lot of that production went the way of freshman sensation Sammy Watkins, as the young wideout grabbed 77 balls, for 1,153 yards and 11 TDs. Fellow WR DeAndre Hopkins (62 catches, 871 yards, four TDs) gives Boyd a viable second option down the field. Throw in consensus All-American Dwayne Allen at tight end (48 receptions, 577 yards, eight TDs), and Boyd has plenty of weapons at his disposal. Allen won the Mackey Award, given to the nation's top tight end.
The Tigers also have the ability to run the ball, headlined by tailback Andre Ellington, who rumbled for 1,062 yards and 10 TDs this season.
Holgorsen knows that Clemson's offense will present problems.
"They are similar to us; I think they are incredibly similar to us. They have the quarterback (Tahj Boyd) who is a talented kid. He makes play and keeps the play alive. He can throw it, and he can scramble. They run him more than we run Geno (Smith). They have a great tight end, and Sammy Watkins is one of the faster football players in college football."
The Clemson defense was a step or two behind the offense in terms of production in 2011, allowing 379.4 yards per game. The team had trouble at times stopping the run (176.5 ypg).
Still, this unit has playmakers at each level. Up front, opponents have to gameplan for All-American rush end Andre Branch. The 6-5, 260-pound senior finished second on the team in tackles (78) and led the team in both TFLs (16.0) and sacks (10.5). Safety Rashad Hall led the team in tackles (81), with fellow safety Jonathan Meeks (53 tackles, team-high three INTs) making his presence felt as well. Linebacker Corico Hawkins (73 tackles) is active in the middle.