Destiny, and the Psychology of the Sugar Bowl
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 12/28/04

The 2004 Virginia Tech football season started with refrains of "It's 1998 All Over Again," but in an unexpected turn of events, it has ended with satisfied sighs of "It's 1995 All Over Again." As the Sugar Bowl clash with Auburn approaches, one is left to wonder what the final destiny of this Hokie football team is, and where they'll take their place in the history of great football teams at Virginia Tech.

Back at the beginning of the 1999 season, I ran a poll here on TechSideline.com that asked the readers to name their favorite Hokie football team of all time. The 1995 Hokies won over the 1993, 1996, and 1998 teams. That was prior to the 1999 national championship run, and if I had asked the question right after the 1999 season, that '99 team would have won in a landslide.

But as the 2004 season comes to a close, recalling memories of the 1995 season, one thing is clear: the 1995 team is still as beloved as it ever was. All these thoughts of seasons past makes me wonder where Hokie fans will file this 2004 team, emotionally and logically, once the season has ended and things are in the past.

2004 is a special season. (Stick around for my next revelation, as I make statements like "water is wet" and "Michael Jordan was a good basketball player".) There will never be another inaugural ACC season, and never another first ACC championship. There will be other Hokie teams that overachieve and pleasantly surprise us, but they won't have the opportunity to take the unique stage that this one did. There's only one first ACC season.

From that standpoint, future editions of ACC Hokie football teams will have trouble trumping what this year's team did. The 1995 team was the first to win the Big East and go to a major bowl; the 1999 team was the first to play for the national championship; and the 2004 team was the first to win the ACC (though you can argue that future editions have the opportunity to win the 12-team ACC, including its championship game, something this one didn't have a chance to do but could have and would have, I think, had the opportunity been there).

Part of me thinks that winning or losing the Sugar Bowl won't have much of an effect on how this 2004 team is perceived further down the road, as their accomplishments age and are measured against everything that came before and will come after. This team is beloved, due to both its on-field accomplishments and its likable, charismatic leadership in Bryan Randall, Jim Davis, Darryl Tapp, et al. If you perceive this team as I do, then a loss in the Sugar Bowl won't tarnish what they have already accomplished in your mind.

But then I start to wonder about what a win would do. A win would push the Hokies further into the Top 10, perhaps as high as the Top 5, depending upon what shakes out in the rest of the bowls. A win would give this team 11 victories, something that has been accomplished only by the Michael-Vick led teams of 1999 and 2000, which both went 11-1.

While a Sugar Bowl win might not change your perception of this team much as a Hokie fan because we're all so darn impressed already it would cause a shift in thinking on a national level. There is a feeling that SEC champion Auburn should be playing for the national championship at 12-0, and that Virginia Tech, a mere 10-2 and winners of an ACC that had the weakest FSU and Miami teams seen around here in awhile, doesn't deserve to be on the stage with the Tigers.

By winning against Auburn, Virginia Tech can shift the perception of the ACC, the perception of the Virginia Tech program, and the perception of their coach, Frank Beamer. A victory would elevate both the ACC and the Hokies from their current perception of being one level below the SEC and Auburn, respectively, to something at least equal.

But on that last point the perception of Frank Beamer this year's Hokies have an important victory yet left to win. If this team loses the Sugar Bowl, Frank Beamer will suddenly have a statistic attached to him: 1-3 in BCS bowls, losers of three in a row. The media loves to sense what they think are negative trends and to point them out ad nauseum, and if Beamer's Hokies lose a third straight BCS bowl, print and TV media will be standing at the ready at the next BCS bowl appearance by the Hokies, ready to whisper "can't win the big one" over and over.

You can even argue that that point will have merit. The Hokies beat Texas in the 1995 Sugar Bowl, but the Longhorns were the weakest team VT has played in a BCS/Alliance Bowl. Texas came in ranked #9 in the AP Poll, and though they had some talent, they weren't nearly a powerhouse team like the Hokies faced in the 1996 Orange Bowl (Nebraska, ranked #6), the 1999 Sugar Bowl (FSU, ranked #1), or this year's Sugar Bowl (Auburn, ranked #3).

A victory over #3 Auburn will short circuit any opportunity doubters will have to question VT's BCS credentials. While a loss would allow the media and college football fans to continue the "Auburn should be in the title game" drumbeat, a victory would make everyone stop short and have to reevaluate things. It would go a long way to raising VT's already solid reputation a notch.

The point is, while the 2004 team's profile in the minds of Hokie fans is set and won't be affected much by a Sugar Bowl win or loss, a win would make a big splash in the world outside Blacksburg and the state of Virginia.

The Psychology of the Sugar Bowl

The notion that a Sugar Bowl win isn't needed for this team to validate itself in the minds of its fans, coaches or players brings up the question: what exactly will motivate this team, which has achieved so much and has little left to prove? Is it possible that they might show up in New Orleans, satisfied with their season, and not put up a performance worthy of their season so far?

To extend that question, what's Auburn's motivation? The Tigers went through an SEC schedule undefeated, won the SEC championship game, went 12-0 and (woe are they) have to play Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, instead of getting to play in the national championship game. Will this anger the Tigers, spurring them to play well, or will they show up deflated and distracted and get beaten by Virginia Tech?

We won't know, of course, until some time between 11 and midnight on January 3rd. Well, maybe we'll know before then, but you get my point. The final verdict won't be in until the score itself is final.

More than likely, the Hokies will be focused. I read a message board post yesterday in which the poster came up with the perfect term, stating that the challenge VT faces against a very good Auburn team will give the Hokies that little combination of "fear and excitement" that focuses the mind of the player come game time. It's possible that the Hokies will come in resting on their laurels as ACC champions, but it's not likely.

As for Auburn, it's difficult to tell if the uproar over not being able to play for the championship is something that's simply media-generated and not on the minds of the players and coaches, or if it has infected the entire team, from the players through the fans.

We don't know the answer to that question about Auburn, and we may never know. My guess is if the Tigers win, they'll beat their chests and talk about how the BCS snub motivated them. If they lose, there will be no mention of the championship game. I can hypothesize about one thing: anger is not a good motivating force, long-term. It will get you through the first quarter or so, but you can't play an entire football game mad. Eventually, you have to settle down and execute. So if Auburn as an organization is angry over the snub, that will only get them so far.

Another factor is the amount of respect that each team has for the other. The mention of VT being filled with "fear and excitement" above is more precisely phrased as "respect and excitement." The Hokies know that Auburn is ranked #3, and they respect that, as well as Auburn's credentials as SEC champions.

The question is, do the Tigers respect Virginia Tech? They'll say they do, but in the backs of their minds, is there the opinion that it's "just" VT from the ACC, and not a "real" football team from a "real" conference? As much as the Hokies have accomplished in the last ten years, Virginia Tech is still a long way away from being accepted throughout college football as a national power. Texas their fans, at least, and the national media didn't respect the Hokies in 1995. Alabama was outwardly respectful leading up to the 1998 Music City Bowl, but showed obvious signs of surprise at the 38-7 butt-whipping they received. In 1999, FSU took VT seriously, one of the few "traditional" national powers to do so consistently, and they earned a championship because of it.

With the equity in talent across so much of college football, the psychological game becomes more important. Auburn has a reputation of being not just a talented team, but a team that is thriving on chemistry, much like Virginia Tech is doing this season. In the intangibles department though, I'd have to give the edge to VT, even if just slightly. Despite all they've accomplished, the Hokies are still lying in the weeds, waiting to pounce, while Auburn may have their eyes on something on the horizon, instead of watching their flanks.

As I said, time will tell, but I like VT's position in the mental game-within-the-game.

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