MORGANTOWN - As recently as two months ago - and certainly before the season began - a potential invitation to the Champs Sports Bowl at season's end would have been looked upon as a disappointment for West Virginia's football team.
The hopes and expectations were much higher.
But on Sunday that's exactly the postseason ticket that was punched for the Mountaineers. And coach Bill Stewart put the best face possible on it.
"We're absolutely thrilled and excited to be a participant and we're looking forward to it,'' Stewart said Sunday night when the matchup was announced. "I think the people of West Virginia, as well as this football team, are excited about the opportunity.''
The No. 22 Mountaineers (9-3), foiled originally by their own mistakes earlier this season and finally by Connecticut on Saturday night, have been given the Big East's consolation prize. They will face unranked North Carolina State (8-4) in the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, Fla., which this season replaces the Gator Bowl as the Big East's top non-BCS destination.
The official announcement came Sunday evening following the announcement of the BCS selections. The Champs Sports Bowl had also considered inviting 7-5 Notre Dame instead of a Big East team - which the bowl can do once in the four-year contract beginning with this year's game - but instead opted for a ranked WVU team. Notre Dame was then chosen by the Sun Bowl to face Miami (Fla.).
"We just felt like a ranked West Virginia team that's 9-3 deserved to be here,'' said Florida Citrus Sports CEO Steve Hogan, who said he had a long-range view of the agreement of Notre Dame. "Between a 7-5 Notre Dame team and a 9-3 ranked team, West Virginia deserved to be here.''
N.C. State was the bowl's choice with the No. 3 pick from the ACC. The teams that played in Saturday's ACC title game, Virginia Tech and Florida State, are ticketed for the Orange and Chick-fil-A bowls, respectively. So the Champs Sports Bowl's choice essentially came down to Maryland or N.C. State, both 8-4. Although the Terps beat the Wolfpack two weeks ago, a Maryland-WVU game would have been an unappealing regular-season rematch.
The Champs Sports Bowl is Dec. 28 at Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium. Kickoff is 6:30 p.m., the game will be televised by ESPN, and is one of only two games that day. The other is the Insight Bowl later that night.