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December 16, 2011

Surprise Sugar Bowl bid gives Hokies chance to end season on sweet note

By: Jimmy Robertson

As Tech head coach Frank Beamer sat on the bus during the ride home following the Hokies’ ACC championship game loss to Clemson, he said he began to wonder/wish/hope about the possibilities of a Sugar Bowl berth for his program.

Twenty-four hours later, a disjointed BCS system delivered an early Christmas gift to Blacksburg, placing that invitation snuggly within the Hokies’ Christmas stocking.

As most know, the debate has raged on Tech’s worthiness for such a gift. National pundits continue to hammer the Hokies (not fair) and the system (totally fair). Michigan, Tech’s opponent in the Sugar Bowl, finished behind the Hokies in the BCS standings, yet no one acts appalled that the Wolverines received a same at-large invite. As for the BCS, college football fans overwhelmingly disdain it, and justifiably so.

But Tech shouldn’t get caught up in all that. As Beamer stated following the bowl announcement, the Hokies need not apologize. Winning and having great fans who travel to bowls simply brings with it certain privileges. Besides, what were the Hokies supposed to do? Say “No, thanks?”

For Tech, the focus needs to be on the game and not how it got there. This bowl is important on many fronts – extending the bowl streak, winning 12 games in a season for the first time in school history and securing that one win that makes this year’s senior class the winningest in school history. It’s about beating Big Blue and their blue and gold helmets and their tradition. It’s about the ACC versus the Big Ten. It’s about a future Hall of Fame coach in Beamer versus a turnaround specialist in burly Brady Hoke.

But perhaps of most importance from this perspective, this bowl offers an opportunity to expunge the sour taste from the Hokies’ mouths following a surprisingly poor performance in the ACC title game, especially considering how the Hokies played down the stretch. Clemson clocked Tech in primetime on national television, as the Hokies allowed too many big plays, David Wilson never got untracked, and Logan Thomas turned the ball over three times. Also, Tech committed too many penalties and lost its composure at points.

The Sugar Bowl provides another national stage for Tech to show its real colors and not that display people saw in Charlotte.

“Absolutely,” Beamer agreed. “We’re disappointed in how we played. You’ve got to give Clemson a lot of credit. They played well, a very complete ball game. We didn’t play as well as we needed to for whatever reason.

“The game just never flowed for us. Every time something happened that you think could swing it, there was a penalty involved or there was something. The flow of the game never went our way.”

Now, sure, Tech could have expunged that sour taste with a victory over Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta. The Chick-fil-A Bowl is the only game on the night of New Year’s Eve. It provides national TV, a national stage.

But beating an Auburn team that resembles a shadow of its national championship self lacks the same national punch as beating 10-win Michigan and elusive quarterback Denard Robinson.

“We need a marquee win,” free safety Eddie Whitley said. “This is a game where we can put our name up there with the most prestigious teams in the country. It would be a big win for us if we could pull this one out.”

The odds certainly favor the Hokies in that regard. Since the 1993 season, Tech is 37-16 in games following a loss.

The players know they’re fortunate to have this opportunity. They understand the rarity of losing by four touchdowns in a conference championship game and still receiving such a gift as a Sugar Bowl berth.

Maybe, just maybe, they’re a little bit lucky. After all, Houston lost, Georgia lost, Oklahoma lost and both TCU and Southern Miss failed to jump up enough in the BCS standings despite victories.

“The ball just bounced our way,” Whitley admitted. “It doesn’t take away from all the hard work we’ve put in this season. We feel like we’re deserving of it. But at the same time, the BCS is random. You have to take what you can get.”

In the end, it doesn’t matter how the Hokies obtained that Sugar Bowl invite. It only matters that they did.

It provides them that opportunity to atone for the ACC title game. Now, hopefully they can take advantage of it.