West Virginia (7-5 overall; 4-5 in Big 12)
Things looked so promising at one point for West Virginia in 2012. The Mountaineers jumped out to a 5-0 start and were perched at No. 4 in the national rankings. Quarterback Geno Smith was the leading Heisman candidate and Dana Holgorsen's offense looked unstoppable. Then Texas Tech poured some cold water on things in a big way, routing West Virginia, 49-14. A week later, Kansas State took its turn, thrashing the Mountaineers, 55-14. Three more losses ensued and, at 5-5, a bowl game was suddenly in doubt. But WVU regrouped, closing out with wins over Iowa State and Kansas, while helping to salvage a disastrous first season in the Big 12.
At their best: Smith threw for 656 yards and eight touchdowns on 45 of 51 passing in a wild 70-63 win over then-No. 25 Baylor. Smith found receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey seemingly at will against the soft Bears secondary and, at the time, it looked like West Virginia was a legit contender for the Big 12 title. A week later, the Mountaineers beat Texas to move to 5-0 and (apparently) into the national title mix. It seems so long ago now, doesn't it?
At their worst: The struggles of the West Virginia defense finally came to the forefront as Texas Tech whipped the undefeated Mountaineers in Lubbock, 49-14. Seth Doege threw for 499 yards and six touchdowns as the Red Raiders dominated from the start. Meanwhile, the offense and Smith couldn't find their rhythm, managing just one touchdown through the first 58 minutes. It was the worst loss for WVU since 2001. But it was just the beginning of a nasty slide.
Headliner: While Smith deservedly hogged most of the early-season headlines, the player who really made this team go all year was wide receiver/tailback Austin. The senior caught 110 passes for 1,259 yards and 12 touchdowns and, later in the season, moved to the backfield and piled up 598 rushing yards and three scores while averaging nearly 10 yards per carry. He gashed Oklahoma for 344 yards on 21 carries, part of an epic 572 all-purpose yardage effort against the Sooners. Austin was one of the most exciting and dynamic players in all of college football and, without him, West Virginia would probably not be in a bowl.
Syracuse (7-5 overall; 5-2 in Big East)
While Syracuse isn't quite as dynamic on offense as West Virginia, the Orange are sound on both sides of the ball and came into their own later in the year, winning five of their last six. Senior quarterback Ryan Nassib had a fine season, throwing for 3,619 yards and 24 touchdowns, while junior running back Jerome Smith rushed for 1,019 yards. Alec Lemon and Marcus Sales were an underrated receiving duo, combining for 133 catches. This is the second bowl for Cuse under head coach Doug Marrone and the last game for the Orange as a member of the Big East (they'll move to the ACC next season).
At their best: Syracuse squashed undefeated and ninth-ranked Louisville, 45-26, on Nov. 10. Nassib was superb, completing 15 of 23 passes for 246 yards and three touchdowns, while Smith rushed for 144 yards on 18 carries. The Orange led 31-13 at halftime and never looked back, piling up 524 yards of offense while limiting the Cardinals to just 48 yards rushing.
At their worst: The Orange hit rock bottom in late September, losing to Minnesota, 17-10. Nassib was intercepted twice and he lost a fumble, too, as Syracuse turned the ball over four times. Coming on the heels of a close opening day loss to Northwestern and a frustrating, but relatively close, defeat at the hands of No. 1 USC, things looked pretty bleak for the 1-3 Orange at that point.
Headliner: Nassib was one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the country in 2012. He improved significantly over his junior season thanks to some changes in the Syracuse offense. The Orange moved to a no-huddle attack and allowed Nassib to throw the ball more and he responded by improving his efficiency rating by 22 points and increasing his yardage total by nearly 1,000 yards. The senior played himself into a dark horse prospect in the NFL draft and he could end up being taken within the first three rounds.
What: New Era Pinstripe Bowl
When: Saturday, Dec. 29, 3:15 ET, ESPN
Where: Yankee Stadium, Bronx, New York
Line: West Virginia -4
Weird: These two teams met every year from 1955-2011 and, with West Virginia bolting to the Big 12, another meeting didn't appear to be in the cards anytime soon. But here they are, together again.
Prediction: This should be an exciting, back-and-forth game, as both offenses know how to move the ball. However, West Virginia is a bit more dynamic, with such downfield threats as Bailey and Austin at its disposal. Austin is also a threat in the return game. Nassib's pinpoint passing combined with the bumbling Mountaineer secondary should keep this one close.
West Virginia 45, Syracuse 41