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December 16, 2011

Tech's Sugar Bowl bid a validation of the Hokies' program and what it stands for under Beamer

By: Bill Roth

As he rode up Interstate 77 in the front seat of one of his team’s buses, chugging up Fancy Gap Mountain toward his hometown, Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer worked on his coaches’ poll ballot. Beamer was trying to put the bad taste of the ACC championship game loss to Clemson out of his mind for at least a couple of minutes while he filled out his top-25 list.

Truth be known, an hour earlier, Beamer had no idea whatsoever that his team might land an at-large Bowl Championship Series bid. In fact, following the loss to Clemson, Beamer delivered a promise/half apology to Chick-fil-A Bowl Chairman Gary Stokan for his team’s performance.

“We’ll play better in Atlanta,” he said.

But as that bus roared up I-77, Beamer focused on his ballot, illuminated only by one of those tiny overhead reading lights that are never quite bright enough. But at that moment, a light went on in Beamer’s mind.

He knew that Southern Miss had upset Houston in the Conference USA title game. The previously unbeaten Cougars were likely Sugar Bowl-bound before that loss.

If Southern Miss and TCU (champs of the Mountain West) weren’t in the top-14 of the BCS standings, then those two schools couldn’t land a BCS bid. Georgia could’ve earned a Sugar Bowl bid had it upset LSU, but that didn’t happen.

Thus, if Alabama and LSU were slotted for a rematch in the BCS title game, the Sugar Bowl would need not just one, but two at-large teams. At that point, Beamer knew his team had a chance. The question was: did his program have the modern-day pedigree to receive an at-large bid for a BCS bowl?

In 2000, the answer was ‘no.’

Eleven years ago, Tech enjoyed one of its finest football seasons in school history, compiling an 11-1 record. Led by quarterback Michael Vick, the Hokies were ranked No. 5 in the final BCS standings, having lost just one game – to No. 3 Miami (a contest at the Orange Bowl that Vick missed because of an injury).

Yet on bowl selection Sunday, the Hokies were passed over by the BCS completely, and specifically by the Fiesta Bowl, which selected Oregon State and Notre Dame for its game.

Despite having the TV ratings draw of Vick and having played in the BCS title game just 12 months earlier, the Hokies still hadn’t earned the cache to get an at-large BCS bid. They certainly had the team and the extraordinarily magical quarterback. But at the end of the day, 11 years ago, that still wasn’t enough.

Now, two decades of winning, an unprecedented string of 10-win seasons and national rankings obviously have changed Tech’s standing in the mercurial world of college football’s high-rent district. Not many two-loss teams get blasted by 28 points in their conference championship game and get an at-large BCS bid the next day.

In reality, Tech’s invitation to the 2012 Sugar Bowl serves as an odd and curious validation and confirmation of where Tech’s program stands on the national landscape.

Yes, the Hokies are 11-2 and ranked in the top 15, but this bowl invitation is just as much about Tech’s rabid fan base, its 87 straight home sellouts and its iconic coach than anything else.

This is about “Enter Sandman.” And the lunch pail. And the Hokie Nation’s passion for its team.

This is for those fans who sat in a hurricane during the Texas A&M game, and who roared on those cold Thursday nights when gloves muffled their applause.

The Sugar Bowl committee saw what Tech fans and the Hokies’ program were about at the Superdome in 1995, 2000 and 2005. C'est gentil de votre part d'être venu (it’s kind of you to come!).

For Virginia Tech to become the first ACC team to earn an at-large berth to the BCS, the “perfect storm” had to occur. The two-team per conference rule prevented Arkansas from getting into the BCS. Since two SEC teams are playing for the national championship, the Sugar Bowl needed to fill not just one, but two slots. Houston’s loss – and TCU’s final ranking – doomed those two Texas schools.

The dominos fell and left two standing: Tech and Michigan.

If any fan base deserved a surprise BCS bid, it’s Hokie Nation. The Fiesta Bowl snub in 2000 and the recent NCAA men’s basketball selection Sunday heartbreaks have been bitter pills for our athletes and constituents alike. I’m hopeful a bunch of guys from the 2000 football team will be at this game in New Orleans, too. It’s 11 years late for them, but a chance to have a grand time in a wonderful city.

And for this year’s team, it’s an opportunity to play the winningest program in the history of college football in a BCS bowl and to have a chance to set the Virginia Tech record for wins in a season (12).

If you’re a Tech fan, you should take great pride this month. This Sugar Bowl bid is a sweet validation (pun intended) of what Beamer has built at Virginia Tech – on the field, in the classroom and in the stands.

The bowl system is certainly flawed, and national pundits will point to Tech’s inclusion in the BCS as an example of politics and will further suggest teams shouldn’t get bowl bids based on decades-long success.

Umm, that’s the way college football has always been. Powerhouse programs that pack their stadiums, win 10-plus games each year and have a Hall of Fame coach on the sidelines play in major bowls.

The modern-day economic reality of the BCS system is that bowls that “double-host” as the Sugar Bowl is doing this year (and as the Orange Bowl did in 2009 when the Hokies faced Kansas) place a greater emphasis on selling tickets to out-of-towners for that first game. There’s so much local focus on the second game – the national championship game – in the local community that having teams that will bring in fans for that first game is even more important than normal. This year, with LSU in the championship game in New Orleans, that need is even greater.

When the Hokies played in their first Sugar Bowl in 1995, there were probably many who wondered if Tech would ever get back to that major BCS stage. Sixteen years later, Tech has played in four Orange Bowls and now four Sugar Bowls.

This BCS bid is different, of course. It’s a validation as much as it is an invitation.