Orange Bowl Preview: West Virginia Mountaineers vs. Clemson Tigers

Dan HopeContributor IIIJanuary 4, 2012

Orange Bowl Preview: West Virginia Mountaineers vs. Clemson Tigers

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    The Orange Bowl is one of the five games of the Bowl Championship Series, but its 2012 matchup simply does not live up to BCS standards. At least the game does feature two conference champions: the West Virginia Mountaineers, the winners of the Big East Conference, and the Clemson Tigers, the champions of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

    The game will be played on Jan. 4 at 8:30 p.m. ET in Miami, Fla. at Sun Life Stadium. The game will be televised on ESPN.

    Note: Rankings used are from my National Top 25 rankings.

West Virginia Mountaineers

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    Record: 9-3 (5-2 Big East)

    Biggest win: at Cincinnati, 24-21, Nov. 12

    Worst loss: at Syracuse, 23-49, Oct. 21

    I’ve been calling the Big East Conference the “Big Joke” (jokingly) for a few years now, and the conference lived up to its mantra once again this season. The Big East receives an automatic BCS bid while the Mountain West Conference and Conference USA do not, but both of the latter conferences have two teams ranked ahead of any of the eight Big East teams.

    It is not completely fair to rip on West Virginia, one of the few quality teams from the Big East this year, but that said, they really have no place being in a BCS bowl. They actually tied with Cincinnati and Louisville for the conference title, getting the Orange Bowl berth on a tiebreaker based upon highest BCS standing.

    There is little in West Virginia’s resume that shows they should even be ranked in the top 25, let alone playing in one of the premier bowl games. West Virginia did play the No. 1 team in the nation, LSU, but has not played another team that is currently ranked. They lost to Syracuse, who is not even bowl eligible, and only have four wins over bowl-eligible teams.

    Moving on, it is a moot point whether West Virginia deserves to play in the Orange Bowl, because they will be playing in the game. Led by quarterback Geno Smith, the Mountaineers rank seventh nationally in passing yards per game.

    That said, their offense is very one-dimensional; their rushing offense, which already ranks only 98th nationally, will be without their top running back, Dustin Garrison, due to a season-ending knee injury.

    The Mountaineers rank 26th nationally in total defense.

Clemson Tigers

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    Ranking in my National Top 25: No. 16

    Record: 10-3 (6-2 ACC)

    Biggest win: vs No. 12 Virginia Tech (ACC Championship Game), 38-10, Dec. 3

    Worst loss: at North Carolina State, 13-37, Nov. 19

    Clemson’s season has certainly been a roller-coaster ride.

    The Tigers rolled through the first two-thirds of their regular season schedule, winning their first eight consecutive games of the season, including a tough three-game stretch of Auburn, Florida State and Virginia Tech. However, they then went on a bad losing spell, losing three of their final four regular-season games to back their way into the ACC Championship Game. Yet in the ACC Championship Game, their second game of the season against Virginia Tech, they were dominant.

    The Tigers rank 27th nationally in total offense and 61st nationally in total defense.

Players to Watch

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    Clemson WR Sammy Watkins, Freshman

    2014 NFL Draft Grade: Top 10

    No true freshman in all of college football this season broke onto the scene more prominently than Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins. Watkins is already turning the heads of NFL scouts, and he is not even eligible until the 2014 NFL Draft!

    Watkins is 6’1’’ and 200 pounds, and is a terrific athlete with great long speed as well as fantastic lateral quickness. Watkins is primarily a wide receiver, but he is also one of the nation’s best kick returners and is used occasionally on running plays. He ranks fourth nationally in all-purpose yardage per game.

    The Clemson Tigers have a number of weapons offensively, including running back Andre Ellington and the nation’s best tight end, Dwayne Allen, but Watkins is the X-factor and the key to Clemson’s success when they have the ball. Clemson’s other top receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, is expected to play, but a concussion he suffered recently could limit his action, making Watkins’s role even more important.

    West Virginia WR Tavon Austin, Junior

    NFL Draft Grade: Round 5-6

    Clemson is not the only team in this game with a dynamic, fast, do-everything wide receiver. West Virginia’s answer to Sammy Watkins is Tavon Austin.

    Austin is much smaller than Watkins and is not nearly as skilled of a wide receiver, but he has game-breaking speed and quickness that enables him to beat defenses and make big plays. Additionally, Austin is both a great kick returner and punt returner. With all of the ways Austin contributes offensively, he actually leads the nation in all-purpose yardage.

    Sophomore wideout Stedman Bailey actually leads the Mountaineers in receiving yardage, but Austin’s speed and ability to contribute in so many different facets makes him West Virginia’s X-factor offensively. Austin has gained 191.2 yards per game (41.7 percent of all West Virginia offensive production), so his impact is crucial to his team’s success in the Orange Bowl.

    Clemson DT Brandon Thompson, Senior

    NFL Draft Grade: Round 2

    It seems that the Clemson Tigers consistently have talented NFL defensive line prospects, and this year, they have two. Defensive end Andre Branch is a talented pass rusher who receives most of the hype, but defensive tackle Brandon Thompson is actually the better prospect of the two.

    At 310 pounds, Thompson has ideal size for the defensive tackle position, while he is explosive and quick at the line of scrimmage. He is still somewhat raw as a player and has not been as dominant as he could be. That said, his ability to penetrate the gap, draw double teams and be a consistent interior presence enables Branch and other defensive players to make a bigger impact.

    Thompson, a senior playing in his final collegiate game, is a likely second-round selection for the 2012 NFL draft. Keep an eye for him to make a real impact in this game.

    West Virginia DE Bruce Irvin, Senior

    NFL Draft Grade: Round 4 (OLB)

    Bruce Irvin is the difference-maker for West Virginia’s defense, and as the team’s best pass rusher, they will be looking for him to make the game difficult for Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd in this game.

    Irvin’s numbers went down this season, managing only seven sacks after having 14 to be second in the nation as a junior. Oddly enough, his numbers inversely went down as his playing time went up, as he went from being a situational pass rusher to an every-down player.

    The fact of the matter is that Bruce Irvin is not particularly good at anything other than pass rushing, but as one of the nation’s best pass rushers, he is a game-changer. Irvin has superb athleticism, which consistently gives opposing pass blockers problems. However, he lacks the strength and discipline needed to be good against the run as a defensive end.

    In his final collegiate game, Irvin’s goal will be to get into the backfield and wreak havoc as a pass-rusher. He projects to the next level strictly as a situational pass-rusher, but he has tremendous potential as a situational pass-rushing outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, which should make him worth a fourth-round selection.

Comparing the Two Teams

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    Common opponent: Maryland

    West Virginia: Road win, 37-31, Sept. 17

    Clemson: Road win, 56-45, Oct. 15

    Both teams are conference champions.

    Wins vs bowl-eligible teams: West Virginia 4, Clemson 6

    Losses vs non-bowl-eligible teams: West Virginia 1, Clemson 0

    West Virginia’s passing offense: Seventh in nation, 341.8 yards per game

    Clemson’s passing defense: 36th in nation, 202.9 yards allowed per game

    Clemson’s total offense: 27th in nation, 440.6 yards per game

    West Virginia’s total defense: 26th in nation, 340.2 yards per game

Prediction Analysis

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    These two teams have been similar statistically this season, and both teams have multiple explosive playmakers offensively.

    That said, Clemson has played a significantly stronger schedule than West Virginia. Toward the end of the season, when they lost three of their final four games, many of their key players were battling injuries, including quarterback Tajh Boyd, running back Andre Ellington and Sammy Watkins.

    The Mountaineers are also dealing with a significant injury concern of their own with the loss of running back Dustin Garrison, a crippling blow to an already weak rushing offense. The Mountaineers will be without Garrison against one of the most athletic defenses outside of LSU that they will play this year.

    In many recent years, it has been proven true in these BCS bowls that the Big East Conference champion is a team that really is not of the caliber that should be playing in the Orange Bowl. I expect that notion to prove true this year, with Clemson winning this game big.

    Final Score Prediction: Clemson 37, West Virginia 17