WVU, Clemson take the long road
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- In the aftermath of a loss to USF in the Meineke Car Care Bowl last season, one player stood up in front of his teammates and spoke.
The room hushed.
DeAndre McDaniel, a senior, was done at Clemson, but he would never quit on the Tigers. He looked around the room. McDaniel saw heaps of talent, and knew with hard work, dedication and a renewed pride in leadership responsibilities, his teammates could go further than any Clemson team had in years.
"That speech motivated the team to really capitalize on the ability we have," safety Rashard Hall said. "Our mentality throughout the offseason was to get to a BCS bowl."
Clemson players began talking about making the BCS right after that game. They believed when nobody else did. And really, nobody did -- Clemson began the year unranked and unloved. Florida State was the popular choice to come out of the Atlantic Division. Clemson was picked second.
A hot start made believers out of many. But Clemson slipped. So did West Virginia, the preseason pick in the Big East. The truth is, nobody knew until the last week of the season that West Virginia and Clemson would indeed make it to the BCS and face each other in the Discover Orange Bowl tonight. So you could say they are the surprise conference reps of the 2011 season, two teams that lost their way before finding themselves when it mattered most.
"We did things that have never been done at Clemson, did things that haven't been done in 20 or 30 years," Hall said. "This season is definitely special, and I think will be remembered for a long time around Clemson."
Indeed, the Tigers are back in the Orange Bowl for the first time since the 1981 season, when they beat Nebraska 22-15 to win the national championship. But headed into the ACC championship game, nobody really expected Clemson to be here.
After an 8-0 start vaulted the team to No. 5 in the BCS standings and No. 6 in the AP and coaches' polls, Clemson lost at Georgia Tech. Losses to NC State and South Carolina followed. Next came a rematch in the ACC championship game against Virginia Tech, but few gave the Tigers much of a chance to win.
As it had done all season, Clemson believed, and made believers en route to its first ACC title since 1991. It was incredibly gratifying to a team that finished last season with a leadership void, and a losing record.
As coach Dabo Swinney has preached time and again, leadership, accountability and team chemistry have been the biggest differences between his team last year and his team this year. They believed in the motto he set forth for this season:
One team. One dream.
"It's a choice," Swinney said. "Especially last year we didn't have a good year, and there was a lot of negativity. You know, it's just bad in every area. They have to hear bad, read bad, all this kind of stuff. You have to make a choice when you're a part of something as to what you're going to believe in. You know, our players have chosen to believe in the right things. They've chosen to believe in the vision of our program. They've embraced changes, and that's the No. 1 thing, because without that, you've got no chance.
"The players set their sights on being here, and they got it done, and they deserve all the credit."
West Virginia began the season as a favorite, but that quickly changed after losses to Syracuse and Louisville knocked the Mountaineers two games behind Cincinnati in the race for the Big East championship.
Their own fortunes changed in November, when they beat the Bearcats and then won out. Cincinnati dropped another game, and so did Louisville. West Virginia beat USF on a Thursday night in the regular-season finale to essentially clinch the BCS berth, as West Virginia won the three-way tiebreaker because it was the highest-ranked team in the final BCS standings.
Coach Dana Holgorsen has repeatedly talked about the resilience of this football team, about leaders stepping up, telling their teammates to play with more energy and enthusiasm. It's something that has been stressed repeatedly, and Holgorsen truly believes that helped the Mountaineers come from behind to win their final three games of the season.
"One thing was trying to find our identity," defensive tackle Julian Miller said. "We found it toward the end of the season. It took us a while, and we gradually got better. Also, the senior leadership with guys like me and a couple other fifth-year seniors, we helped the younger guys get through it."
Seniors like Miller are playing for their third head coach since they arrived at West Virginia, so there clearly was time needed to make the transition to a first-time head coach like Holgorsen -- especially since he was promoted from offensive coordinator in June. West Virginia got everything together just in time, and so did Clemson. Now here they are, living out their season of success on the biggest stage.
"We never listened to the naysayers," Clemson defensive end Andre Branch said. "If we did that, then we wouldn't be here. We never doubted ourselves one bit. It's not surprising to us, but I know it's surprising to a lot of people. We know what we have on our team and with our coaching staff. It's my last time playing for Clemson, so it's the best way to go out for me."
Andrea Adelson covers the Big East for ESPN.com.
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