WVU came into the season in the top 10 and as a consensus choice to win the Big East. Instead, WVU opened 1-2 to fall out of the polls and lost late-season games to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh to finish in a three-way tie for second in the league.
WHEN: 1 p.m. Dec. 27.
WHERE: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.
TV: ESPN (Sean McDonough will do play-by-play, with Chris Spielman as the analyst).
THE LINE: West Virginia by 1.5.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: North Carolina 6-3, West Virginia 3-3.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: North Carolina 32nd, West Virginia T-47th.
BCS RANKINGS: N/A for either team.
COACHES: North Carolina − Butch Davis (4-0 in bowls); West Virginia − Bill Stewart (1-0 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: This is the final game in the illustrious career of West Virginia QB Pat White. Forget all those folks who talk about how White won't play quarterback in the NFL. So what? The guy is one of the most exciting college players of his era. Plus, the teams appear evenly matched, and it should be close.
KEY STATS: West Virginia is 12th nationally in rushing offense, at 217.2 yards per game. North Carolina is 95th in total offense, at 317.3 yards per game.
KEEP AN EYE ON: It's got to be White, in his final college game. He has rushed for "only" eight touchdowns this season but remains a threat to score anytime the ball is in his hands.
This is the Mountaineers' first non-New Year's Day – or later – bowl appearance since the 2002 season. That year they played in this same bowl – then called the Continental Tire Bowl.
UNC is making its first bowl appearance since 2004 and just its third in 10 seasons. The Tar Heels' last postseason trip was to this bowl (under the previous name) as well.
"There were a lot of things that we were able to accomplish this year, and going to a bowl game is certainly one of those steps along the journey of trying to build the program," said Tar Heels coach Butch Davis, who is 4-0 in bowls as a head coach.
Davis is in his second season at UNC after replacing John Bunting.
"Going 8-4 this year, qualifying for a bowl game – I think that we're moving the meter in the right direction," Davis said.
Who has the edge?
North Carolina run offense vs. West Virginia run defense The Tar Heels have struggled to run the ball consistently this season. Shaun Draughn is the leading rusher, but he has scored just three rushing TDs. Ryan Houston is a load near the goal line. The good news for UNC is that WVU's run defense is nothing special. Every team other than Cincinnati that made it a priority to run on the Mountaineers was able to do so.
North Carolina pass offense vs. West Virginia pass defense The Tar Heels' passing attack is adequate, nothing more. The midseason injury to WR Brandon Tate has hurt. Eight of UNC's nine interceptions have come in losses. QB T.J. Yates - who missed half the regular season with an ankle injury - is expected to start, with Cameron Sexton in reserve. Hakeem Nicks, who had four 100-yard games this season, is the Tar Heels' only wide receiver of note. WVU has been good against the pass. The Mountaineers have allowed a foe to pass for more than 200 yards just twice in the past 10 games. For the season, they've allowed just eight TD passes while coming up with 16 interceptions. Seven of the picks came in the final three regular-season games.
Edge: West Virginia.
West Virginia run offense vs. North Carolina run defense WVU can run the ball, but it hasn't been nearly as dynamic on the ground as in recent seasons. WVU has scored just 14 rushing touchdowns this season, and in just three games did the Mountaineers rush for more than one TD. Still, White and mighty-mite TB Noel Devine are explosive and can score from anywhere. The Tar Heels have been adequate against the run. They were gashed by Georgia Tech but still won easily over the Yellow Jackets. More worrisome is that Maryland and NC State ran for a combined 382 yards and five touchdowns. UNC has a good linebacker group, and those guys will be busy.
Edge: West Virginia.
West Virginia pass offense vs. North Carolina pass defense.
White has thrown 18 TD passes, which is a single-season high for him. However, this is not a high-powered passing attack. Five of those TD tosses came in the opener against Villanova. Jock Sanders is the leading receiver, but he averages only 8.2 yards per catch. UNC's cornerbacks can be exploited, but the Tar Heels have 19 picks and have allowed 12 TD passes. Strong safety Trimane Goddard has had an excellent season, and free safety Deunta Williams is solid, too.
Edge: North Carolina.
North Carolina special teams vs. West Virginia special teams Tate's injury cost UNC an excellent punt returner. Johnny White is solid on kickoff returns, and UNC's coverage teams are excellent. Punter Terrence Brown and kickers Casey Barth and Jay Wooten are adequate. WVU's return teams are mediocre, The punt coverage unit is excellent but the kickoff coverage has been bad, with opponents averaging 27.9 yards per kickoff return. Pat McAfee does double-duty as the punter and kicker. He's 16-of-19 on field-goal attempts, including 7-for-8 from beyond 40 yards, though he has missed a 21-yarder and a 23-yarder. He averages 44.7 per punt, with 23 of his 59 attempts landing inside the 20. He is better than his UNC counterparts, but UNC is better on coverage and on returns. UNC has blocked six kicks this season, including four punts. LB Bruce Carter has five of the blocks.
North Carolina coaches vs. West Virginia coaches Reams of copy have been written on how Butch Davis has turned around North Carolina and how WVU has struggled under Bill Stewart. Worth remembering, though, is how ready WVU was to play in the Fiesta Bowl last season under Stewart.
Edge: North Carolina.
X-factor: Watch for turnovers. UNC has forced 27, WVU 26. But WVU (14) turns it over less than UNC (21).
North Carolina will win if: The Tar Heels need to be able to run the ball, especially right at the Mountaineers. They could get routed if their running game is shut down. Defensively, they can't allow big plays in the passing game.
West Virginia will win if: A big game by White and/or Devine would go a long way toward the Mountaineers winning the game. WVU also needs to make sure Nicks is held somewhat in check; he is UNC's only scary receiver.
The pick Mike Huguenin: North Carolina 27, West Virginia 23.
Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.