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
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
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