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Bowlers WVU, MU will have some firsts

By Jack Bogaczyk

It is said there is a first time for everything. So it goes for the Mountain State's bowl-bound major college football teams.

West Virginia, by virtue of its Bowl Championship tiebreaker in a Big East Conference three-team championship, is headed to the Jan. 4 Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, against Clemson (10-3), which throttled Virginia Tech for the ACC title.

WVU (9-3) has played 30 games in 14 bowls in history, but never an Orange. The Mountaineers' only date with Clemson was a 1989 Gator Bowl loss to the nation's No. 14 team.

Marshall heads to the fourth annual Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl to meet Florida International (8-4), a solid, home-state fill-in from the Sun Belt Conference because the Big East didn't have a sixth bowl qualifier.

The Dec. 20 date under the Tropicana Field dome is the Herd's first trip to the St. Petersburg game, where Conference USA has an 0-3 history (losses by Memphis, UCF, Southern Mississippi).

It's also Marshall's first bowl in Florida in more than six decades.

Sounds like a couple of competitive games to me.

While WVU will be making its third BCS game appearance (wins over Georgia and Oklahoma) in seven years - under three coaches - Clemson, somewhat surprisingly, is in a BCS game for the first time in the series' 14-year history.

The Tigers and Fiesta-bound Oklahoma State are the BCS newcomers for the 2012 games, bringing the number of schools to 47 in the BCS, which morphed from the Bowl Alliance in the 1998 season.

And for the first time, the ACC - with a 2-11 BCS record - got an at-large bid, as the Hokies landed in the Sugar Bowl, which replaced its two national title game teams in the SEC-hosted bowl with Tech and Michigan.

Clemson and WVU, 15th and 23rd in the final BCS standings, are the two lowest in the 10-team field, joined by teams that finished Nos. 1-5 (LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma State, Stanford, Oregon), 10 (Wisconsin), 11 (Virginia Tech) and 13 (Michigan).

And speaking of firsts, the Orange Bowl said Sunday that WVU's Dana Holgorsen is only the second coach to guide a team to the 77-year bowl in his first season as a head coach. The other was Chuck Fairbanks, who coached Oklahoma to a 26-24 win over Tennessee to close the 1967 season.

It's also a homecoming for those Miami-area Mountaineers, led by quarterback Geno Smith and receiver Stedman Bailey, not to mention a sweet swansong for West Virginia from the Big East - which it needs to officially exit soon if the Big 12 is going to be able to accommodate WVU in scheduling next season.

(Speaking of the Big 12, the final BCS top 25 included six teams that will play in the Big 12 with the Mountaineers in future seasons. That's why getting in a BCS game may have been more crucial for WVU this time.)

The Beef 'O' Brady's is Marshall's 10th bowl trip, but interestingly, the Herd's first to the usually warm home to three of the seven longest-running postseason games - Florida.

It's the Herd's first bowl trip there since New Year's Day 1948, when it lost the second annual Tangerine Bowl - now the Capital One - to Catawba, 7-0 before an estimated crowd of 9,000 in Orlando.

The Beef is the game Marshall wanted, for so many reasons, and one the Herd (6-6) earned the hard way, going .500 against a schedule that was half-filled by teams that either won conference tittles or were runners-up. One poll (GBE Ratings) has the Herd strength of schedule at No. 12, with the largest degree of difficulty for a team not in a BCS automatic qualifying league.

The date against FIU is a matchup of teams that both won at Big East tri-champion Louisville, and it takes Coach Doc Holliday's club into a Sunshine State where he has deep recruiting ties and he prospects for players heavily - see the 29 Floridians on the current MU roster.

It also might help sell tickets that MU's biggest alumni state residency number, after West Virginia and Ohio, is in Florida. The Herd has taken its entire 7,500-ticket allotment, and gets to retain its first $100,000 in bowl sales, then 50 percent of what it sells over that figure.

It's a game against a program to which Herd rookie starting quarterback Rakeem Cato once committed, and where Marshall offensive coordinator Bill Legg worked as coordinator for FIU Coach Mario Cristobal before heading home to rejoin Holliday.

And it's a game that is likely soon to be a C-USA date. FIU has been mentioned repeatedly at the top of the Conference USA expansion list when - or if - the league loses UCF and others to the Big East. FIU already plays that other futbol - men's soccer - in C-USA.

The Dec. 20 date is also a plus for the Herd over its other bowl possibility, the Compass in Birmingham, Ala., which is played Jan. 7 - one of those afterthought bowls following the BCS biggies.

By Jan. 7, coaches want to be deep into recruiting efforts. It stretches out bowl practices to the interminable, only adding to a long year of hitting that began with preseason drills in early August.

The Beef Bowl got the game it wanted, too, after neither of its primary ties - Conference USA and the Big East - had enough teams to fill their slots.

C-USA gets $475,000 for the Herd participation, while FIU's Sun Belt home gets $250,000 - a bowl savings from the $600,000 that would have been due to the Big East. Soon-to-be ACC member Pitt lobbied big time for either the Big East or C-USA Beef berth after FIU was selected, but is headed back to Birmingham.

A 13th game is a lucky number for the two in-state programs. And if you're a college football team, it's certainly better than being home for the holidays.

 


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