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College Football: A mini-Orange Bowl in Meineke

By Joedy McCreary
Associated Press
CHAPEL HILL ó For a while this season, there was a reasonable chance that North Carolina and West Virginia would meet in the postseason. Just not in Charlotte.
The Tar Heels spent much of the year in the mix in the up-for-grabs Atlantic Coast Conference ó and for the trip to Miami that goes to its champion ó until two losses in November dropped them out of contention.
They insist they’re content with their consolation prize ó a short trip across the state for the Meineke Bowl to face a West Virginia team that is in a similar situation after letting its chance to win the Big East slip away.
Call their upcoming matchup a mini-Orange Bowl.
“Some people might be upset that we’re not going (on) a trip, Orlando or somewhere down in Florida, but I feel like it’s a bowl game ó I’m happy just to go to a bowl game,” Tar Heels sophomore running back Ryan Houston said Monday. “Everybody was saying, ‘You won’t go to a bowl game until your senior year,’ or, ‘Y’all might go to the Chick-Fil-A Bowl your senior year, but y’all aren’t going to touch a bowl game.’ So I feel like it’s a big accomplishment just to make it to a bowl.”
The Dec. 27 game will be the first of three between the ACC and Big East this postseason. N.C. State plays Rutgers in the Papajohns.com Bowl two days later, before league champions Cincinnati and Virginia Tech face off in the Orange.
But a month ago, it wasn’t unrealistic to think these two teams would meet in Miami on New Year’s Day.
Both the Tar Heels (8-4) and Mountaineers (8-4) were near the top of their conferences and spent considerable time in the national rankings before untimely losses dropped them off the pace. Three of North Carolina’s defeats came by a combined eight points, while preseason Big East favorite West Virginia was 10 points away from finishing 11-1.
“Of course, we would have liked to have played in the ACC championship game, but this is a big step,” North Carolina defensive end E.J. Wilson said. “It gives us the opportunity to go out against a great team in West Virginia and prove that we can play with some of the big boys in the nation and prove that we’re ready to play on the national stage.”
The Tar Heels spent much of this season doing just that after going 3-0 against Top 25 teams and reversing their 4-8 record from 2007 in coach Butch Davis’ second season in Chapel Hill.
“You kind of overlook the good things you did this year because we didn’t get to the ACC championship, or we didn’t accomplish some of the things we wanted to,” safety Deunta Williams said. “We did have a good season. We’re still going to have a good season.”
On Saturday they’ll resume practicing for their first bowl berth since the 2004 team also claimed a spot in the Charlotte-based bowl. They’re chasing their first postseason victory since beating Auburn in the Peach Bowl in 2001 ó also the last time they finished above .500 ó and can reach their first nine-win season since Mack Brown’s final North Carolina team went 11-1 in 1997.
“We wanted to put ourselves in position to compete for the ACC championship,” Davis said. “We wanted to compete in meaningful games, games that were important, games on national TV. We wanted to play when the blimp was in the air. Going to a bowl game is certainly one of the steps along the journey of building a program.
“It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not an instant formula where you snap your fingers and have everything that you want,” he added. “I think this bowl signifies that we’re continuing to make positive steps toward the future.”

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