West Virginia and North Carolina will square off in a bowl game -- just not the one where they were expected to meet.
In a matchup of teams that stumbled down the stretch, West Virginia and North Carolina will play in the Meineke Bowl on Dec. 27 in Charlotte, N.C.
The Mountaineers and Tar Heels flirted near the top of their respective conferences for a good chunk of the season, and appeared on course to play in the Orange Bowl before faltering late.
After reeling off a season-high five straight wins from Sept. 27-Nov. 1, the Mountaineers split their final four games. Both losses were only by a combined seven points, but that dropped them into a tie with Pittsburgh and Rutgers for second place in the Big East.
"The Mountaineers have proven to be a very talented and formidable team this season," Meineke Bowl executive director Will Webb said on Dec. 6 after West Virginia (8-4) wrapped up its season with a 13-7 victory over South Florida.
This will be a school-best seventh-straight bowl appearance for the Mountaineers, and second in a row under West Virginia native Bill Stewart, who was the interim coach when he guided them to a 48-28 upset of Oklahoma in last season's Fiesta Bowl after Rich Rodriguez's sudden departure to replace Lloyd Carr at Michigan.
Stewart, who lost the interim tag one day after the upset, told West Virginia's official Web site that this year's matchup is likely to be a lot more difficult.
"We're facing a very formidable, tough, top-notch opponent," he said. "I don't know what we're going to do with this bunch."
North Carolina opened its season with seven wins in nine games, a run that included impressive victories over Top 25 foes Connecticut, Boston College and Georgia Tech by an average of 22.6 points.
Following losses at Maryland and home to North Carolina State, though, Butch Davis' team closed out the regular season on Nov. 29 with a 28-20 victory over Duke. North Carolina (8-4) finished in a tie with Miami for third in the Coastal Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"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," North Carolina safety Deunta Williams said. "We did have a good season. We're still going to have a good season."
In 2007, the Tar Heels finished with a 4-8 record in their second season under Davis, who said he's pleased with the progress that's been made this year but isn't completely satisfied.
"It's not going to happen overnight," he said. "It's not an instant formula where you snap your fingers and have everything that you want. I think this bowl signifies that we're continuing to make positive steps toward the future."
This game will feature one of college football's top rushing tandems in West Virginia quarterback Pat White and running back Noel Devine.
White, a senior, is the NCAA's all-time leader in career rushing among signal-callers with 4,425 yards, including four 200-yard games. White ran for 919 yards with eight touchdowns in 11 games this season.
When he wasn't getting it done with his feet, White was successful with his arm, passing for 1,510 yards and 18 TDs with only six interceptions.
Devine, a sophomore who took over for NFL draftee Steve Slaton, was third in the Big East with 1,228 rushing yards but had only three touchdowns. Devine ran for a career-best 207 yards on Oct. 23 in a 34-17 win over Auburn.
North Carolina is led by junior quarterback T.J. Yates, who missed five games with a broken ankle. He was nearly perfect in the season finale against Duke, completing 15 of 19 passes for 190 yards and a season high-tying three touchdowns.
In six games, Yates completed 60.0 percent (66-of-110) of his passes for 957 yards with nine touchdowns and three interceptions. If Yates struggles, Davis could go with junior Cameron Sexton, who passed for 1,261 yards with nine touchdowns and six picks in eight games.
Junior Shaun Draughn was the Tar Heels' top rusher with 801 yards, yet had only three 100-yard games. Ryan Houston, a 250-pound sophomore, had a team-high eight rushing touchdowns for North Carolina, but no scoring run longer than five yards.
This will be the second meeting between the schools, and first since the Tar Heels -- led by current Texas coach Mack Brown -- posted a 20-13 victory in the 1997 Gator Bowl to finish 11-1.
North Carolina hasn't won a postseason game since beating Auburn in the 2001 Peach Bowl.
Both teams have lost their only appearances in the Meineke Bowl, now in its seventh year. West Virginia lost 48-22 to Virginia in the inaugural event in 2002, and North Carolina lost 37-24 to Boston College in 2004.
AccuScore has powered more than 10,000 simulations for every College Football game on ESPN.com, calculating how each team's performance changes in response to game conditions and opponent's abilities. Each game is simulated and the game is replayed a minimum of 10,000 times to generate forecasted winning percentages.
This is North Carolina's second bowl since 2001 and first since 2004. Meanwhile, West Virginia is coming off five straight New Year's Day bowls, including two BCS wins in the past four seasons. This season, though, the Tar Heels have blown out two Big East bowl-bound teams (Connecticut and Rutgers) and look to spoil WVU quarterback Pat White's final college game on their home-state turf in Charlotte. -- Brian Bennett