Inconvenient travel and lurking Juarez danger aside, the Sun Bowl is a quality destination for Virginia Tech’s football program and part of a historically difficult postseason lineup for the ACC.
The Hokies’ Dec. 31 encounter with UCLA in El Paso, Texas became official Sunday night, after games higher on the ACC food chain selected Florida State, Clemson, Duke and Miami.
Many Tech fans, and perhaps some within the athletic department, were hoping that the Sun would pass on the Hokies, dropping them to a closer bowl such as Nashville’s Music City or Charlotte’s Belk. But given Tech’s brand – this is the program’s 21st consecutive postseason appearance – and coach Frank Beamer’s national reputation, Sun officials eagerly selected the Hokies.
And while only a limited number of maroon-and-orange diehards will venture to El Paso, I’m not convinced throngs would have traveled to Charlotte or Nashville. Perhaps this is misreading the base, but I just don’t sense overwhelming enthusiasm for the team after October/November losses to Duke, Boston College and Maryland.
Besides, in No. 17 UCLA (9-3), the Sun provides Tech (8-4) a stronger opponent than in Charlotte, where North Carolina plays Cincinnati (9-3), or Nashville, where Georgia Tech gets Ole’ Miss (7-5). And beating a top-25 team probably is the unranked Hokies’ only hope of returning to the polls – they were as high as No. 14 before losing to Duke.
Cracking the final top 25 isn’t a be-all, end-all by any stretch, but if Tech doesn’t, this would be the program’s first back-to-back seasons outside the polls since 1991 and ’92. So yeah, besting the Bruins and touted quarterback Brett Hundley to earn a national ranking would be meaningful.
The Hokies could have faced even an better quarterback – Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel in Atlanta’s Chick-fil-A Bowl or Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater in Orlando’s Russell Athletic Bowl – but recent setbacks, especially to Maryland in overtime, damaged their postseason stock. Hence, Duke will play Johnny Football, while Miami gets Bridgewater.
(Tech was going to be a tough sell to Orlando regardless because the Hokies played Rutgers there in a dismal game last season, and bowls try to avoid hosting the same school in consecutive years.)
Like Tech, UCLA was one victory away from reaching its conference championship game, but the Bruins lost to eventual Pacific 12 South winner Arizona State. Indeed, all of UCLA’s setbacks were to ranked opponents – Oregon and Stanford also beat the Bruins – and Jim Mora’s squad boasts wins over bowl-bound Nebraska, Arizona, Washington and crosstown rival Southern California.
Mora is a 1984 Washington graduate, and when the Huskies’ head-coaching position opened last week with Steve Sarkisian’s move to his alma mater, USC, Mora was prominently mentioned as a possible successor. But he subsequently signed a contract extension with UCLA, which, by the way, opens the 2014 season at Virginia.
UCLA is among five ranked opponents ACC teams will play in postseason, a record for the conference. Clemson-Ohio State in the Orange, Duke-Texas A&M in the Chick-fil-A, Miami-Louisville in the Russell Athletic and Florida State-Auburn in the national championship game are the league’s other matchups with top-25 squads.
Clemson received the ACC’s second Bowl Championship Series at-large bid in the system’s 16 years, joining Virginia Tech in 2011. Oregon is two spots ahead of 12th-place Clemson in the BCS standings, but the ACC’s past, present and future partnership with the Orange Bowl prevailed.
Props to league officials and Tigers athletic director Dan Radakovich for massaging that relationship, and to the ACC for finding homes for all 11 of its bowl-eligible teams. That unprecedented number forced the conference to search beyond its contracted games and sent Syracuse to the Texas Bowl in Houston against Minnesota, and Pittsburgh to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit against Bowling Green.
Postseason story lines are plentiful, from No. 1 and undefeated Florida State seeking to end the Southeastern Conference’s seven-year sleeper hold on the national championship, to Miami facing future ACC member Louisville, to Duke playing the foil in what figures to be Manziel’s college farewell.
And while the AdvoCare V100 Bowl in Shreveport, La., carries minimal cachet, with a Boston College-Arizona matchup, it showcases the nation’s two leading rushers, the Eagles’ Andre Williams and Wildcats’ Ka’Deem Carey.
The Rose Bowl is “the granddaddy of them all,” but along with the Orange and Sugar, the Sun is among college football’s second-oldest postseason games, dating to the 1934 season. Such heritage and El Paso’s renowned hospitality, not to mention a dip in Juarez's notorious crime rate, add to what is a welcome challenge for Virginia Tech.
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