West Virginia needed three harrowing victories. Clemson rode the power of a blowout.
Different methods, same reward. The Mountaineers and Tigers are heading to the Orange Bowl.
The matchup was announced Dec. 3 and, given the events of the weekend, was hardly a surprise. No. 14 Clemson (10-3) earned an automatic berth by soundly beating Virginia Tech in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game on Dec. 2.
No. 23 West Virginia (9-3) took a more eventful road, first edging South Florida, then getting a colossal boost when Cincinnati beat Connecticut.
Had Cincinnati lost that game, Louisville would have almost certainly represented the Big East in the Bowl Championship Series. Instead, it's the Mountaineers who were the Orange Bowl's pick to join the Tigers - a matchup that thrilled the bowl's selection committee, which is already eager about the prospect of an offensive showcase.
"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."
The Orange Bowl is Jan. 4 in Miami - the next-to-last BCS game before Alabama and LSU, the subjects of that veiled Swinney jab, meet five nights later to decide the national title.
West Virginia's BCS hopes were, at best, dim after losing 38-35 to Louisville on Nov. 5. The Mountaineers had three games left, two of them on the road, knew they had to win them all to have any realistic shot at one of football's big-money games, and trailed in the fourth quarter in each of those contests.
No problem - West Virginia rallied past Cincinnati 24-21, got a touchdown with 6 minutes remaining to top Pittsburgh 21-20 and then got a field goal as time expired to beat South Florida 30-27. And when Cincinnati held off Connecticut two days later, the Mountaineers knew the Orange Bowl would be calling.
"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," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "Regardless of what happens, you've just got to keep playing, you've got to keep playing, you've got to keep playing and you've got to find a way to win in the end. And for the last three games, our guys have been able to do that."
The Orange Bowl says Holgorsen is only the second coach to lead a team to its game in his first season. He joins Chuck Fairbanks on that list; Fairbanks guided Oklahoma to an Orange Bowl win on Jan. 1, 1968.
"I'm sure when I'm old and gray I will sit back and kind of reflect on it," Holgorsen said. "But until that happens ... it's all about what's in front of us."
The matchup features offenses with big-time numbers.
Combined, West Virginia's Geno Smith - one of a dozen or so Mountaineers from the talent-rich region of South Florida - and Clemson's Tajh Boyd have thrown for 7,556 yards and 56 touchdowns, the slight edge in yardage going to Smith and the slight edge in touchdowns going to Boyd.
And it'll be a homecoming of sorts for Clemson freshman Sammy Watkins as well. Watkins, who grew up about a 2-hour drive away from Miami in the Fort Myers, Fla. area, has 77 catches for 1,153 yards and 11 touchdowns, plus another one score on a return.
"We anticipate an exciting, high-scoring game," Orange Bowl CEO Eric Poms said.
Clemson had eyes on the BCS all season, even getting some mention during the year as a national-title hopeful. The Tigers were never ranked at any point in 2010, but rose all the way to No. 6 this year after an 8-0 start. A loss to Georgia Tech started a downward spiral, during which Clemson lost three of its last four games, the last two of those blowout losses to North Carolina State and rival South Carolina.
The Tigers looked shaky - that is, until Dec. 2.
Clemson snapped its slump in the second half of the ACC title game, turning a matchup that was a 10-10 halftime tie into a 38-10 rout of Virginia Tech.
So 30 years later, the Tigers are back in the Orange Bowl - the game where the school captured its only national championship. Clemson downed Mike Rozier and Nebraska 22-15 on Jan. 1, 1982, capping a perfect season.
"The site of our program's greatest moment," Swinney said.
West Virginia is in the Orange Bowl for the first time and looking for its third BCS win in seven years. It beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl after the 2005 season and topped Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl two years later.
For a pair of schools with rich tradition and separated by only about 500 miles, they have hardly any history against one another.
West Virginia and Clemson have met only once previously, a 27-7 Tigers win in the 1989 Gator Bowl. Chester McGlockton - the former Pro Bowler who died suddenly Nov. 30 - sealed the Tigers' win midway through the fourth quarter of that game 22 years ago by knocking the ball from Mountaineers quarterback Major Harris and falling on it in the end zone for a touchdown.
"We look forward to getting back together down there in Miami," Swinney said.
Originally appeared in The Wheeling News-Register.