SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Welcome to the BCS consolation bracket, otherwise known as the Fiesta Bowl.
Third-ranked Oklahoma thought it deserved a shot at the Bowl Championship Series title after a series of late-season upsets shook up the BCS standings. But the Sooners finished behind another twice-beaten team, LSU.
No. 11 West Virginia only needed to beat Pitt -- a team that lost to Navy -- in Morgantown to clinch a berth in the national title game. The Mountaineers stumbled to a 13-9 loss, then watched coach Rich Rodriguez bolt for Michigan two weeks later.
Denied a shot at No. 1, the Sooners and the Mountaineers have to manufacture motivation as they prepare to meet in the Fiesta Bowl on Wednesday night. After a week of workouts in the desert sunshine, they say they're ready to go.
"Both teams have been in the national title hunt all year," Oklahoma strong safety D.J. Wolfe said. "Both teams are trying to go out and show the world what we can do."
Each side has something to play for, though it's not as obvious or compelling as a national title.
For the Sooners, the game represents a chance to erase the painful memories of last January's loss to Boise State on the same field. Coach Bob Stoops dismisses the notion that there's been any carryover from that game, considered by many to be one of the great bowl games in college football history.
But many Sooners say that beating the Mountaineers would help atone for loss to the Broncos.
"I can't wait to play this game and get rid of that memory," Sooners linebacker Curtis Lofton said.
Oklahoma also wants to end a recent BCS bowl slump. The Sooners have dropped three straight BCS games, losing to LSU in the Sugar Bowl after the 2003 season, to USC in the Orange Bowl after the 2004 season and to Boise State last January.
Oklahoma, which won the 2000 national title, is 2-3 in BCS bowls. The Sooners' sixth BCS appearance is matched only by Florida State, Ohio State and Southern California. But the Sooners aren't satisfied with simply playing in the elite bowls.
"I think this could be a statement for us," Sooner guard Duke Robinson said. "We are going to make sure we come out fully prepared."
West Virginia, meanwhile, looks to rebound from a dispiriting December in which the Mountaineers lost a shot at the national title and their head coach. It wasn't an ideal way to prepare for a game against the Sooners, their toughest test of the season.
"I think this is going to be the biggest game we have this (season) because of what happened," wide receiver Darius Reynaud said. "After coach Rod left, we got together as a team, and we've been sticking together."
Rodriguez's departure has generated controversy and ill will at his alma mater; the university's Board of Governors has sued to collect a $4 million buyout of his contract with the school.
Since the Mountaineers arrived in Arizona last week, the spotlight has fallen on interim coach Bill Stewart, a former Rodriguez aide who has offered an upbeat message to the players Rodriguez left behind.
"We had a situation that was not life-threatening," Stewart said. "There was no loss of life. We had a life-altering situation for some youngsters because our head football coach, who has done such a tremendous job, took another job.
"That was really a good life-altering lesson for our players," Stewart said.
The Sooners say they're not expecting West Virginia to make many strategic changes under Stewart.
"I wish it was some of the players leaving instead of the coach," said Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, noting the Mountaineers' skill and speed.
Both teams feature high-scoring offenses, which fits the Fiesta Bowl's tradition. It started with Arizona State's 45-38 victory over Florida State in the inaugural Fiesta in 1971 and held true in Boise State's 43-42 overtime victory over Oklahoma a year ago.
The Sooners average 43.8 points, third in the country, and West Virginia puts up 38.9 points per game, 11th nationally.
But the Sooners and Mountaineers move the ball in different ways. Oklahoma stresses balance, using tailback Allen Patrick to loosen up defenses and open up passing lanes for quarterback Sam Bradford, the nation's most efficient passer.
West Virginia runs Rodriguez's fabled spread attack to perfection, creating gaps that quarterback Pat White and tailback Steve Slaton sprint through.
"They're pretty special," Stewart said, "And we're not too bad ourselves."