Underdog Virginia Tech isn't of champion pedigree

January 04, 2000|By John Eisenberg

NEW ORLEANS -- You probably know Virginia Tech is an underdog against Florida State in college football's national championship game tonight in the Superdome.

"Just about any college football fan knows that," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said yesterday.

But the Hokies are even bigger underdogs than you think. Let's count the reasons why:

Florida State rotates 65 players in and out of games. Tech uses half as many.

The Seminoles have played almost two seasons' worth of games in the past decade against opponents ranked in the top five. Virginia Tech is 0-2 and hasn't even played a top-five opponent since 1993.

That evidence suggests that, as much as the Hokies have accomplished in going 11-0 and reaching the title game, they might be a bit over their heads tonight, particularly as the game wears on. Beamer himself isn't sure.

"I think we're a good football team," Beamer said, "but whether we're good enough to take on the greatest team of the '90s, we'll find out."

That's not Joe Gibbs-style poor-mouthing. The Hokies have a ton to overcome -- inferior size and big-game experience, as well as depth.

"If people are looking for an underdog to root for, we're it," Beamer said.

But discounting the Hokies is a mistake. Just getting here was a tougher proposition for them than actually trying to win the game. They're not to be underestimated.

"We kind of came out of nowhere," said Beamer, who played at Tech in the '60s and came back as head coach in 1987.

The Hokies were buried in college football's middle class until the '90s, just another faceless independent team making no national waves, muddling along right where they belonged. Such programs seldom lift themselves up for more than a year or two, if ever.

"It's a tough thing to do," Beamer said. "There aren't many teams in college football that change what they're about. They are what they are in their league, whether it's in the middle or whatever, and that's the way things stay. The name schools with the tradition keep getting the recruits, and things stay the same. It's not like the NFL, where you finish last and pick first. That's why we're so proud of what we have done. We've kind of gone against that."

The Hokies joined the Big East in 1991, giving them an avenue on which to rise, and they have gone to seven straight bowls -- one of only eight Division I teams to do so.

But recruiting nicely in Virginia, making gains and being a Top 25 program is one thing, and taking on FSU for the national title is another. It's hard to think of another team that has gone so far after so many decades of obscurity.

BYU finished No. 1 in 1984 after playing a mediocre schedule and finishing with a bowl win over a 6-5 Michigan team, but the Hokies' degree of difficulty -- needing to beat the Seminoles to finish No. 1 -- is far greater.

West Virginia brought a No. 3 national ranking and an 11-0 record into the 1994 Sugar Bowl, hoping to sneak into the national championship debate, but Florida's 41-7 win ended those dreams.

Frankly, the Hokies are doing what no team has done before -- coming from way down in the middle of the pack to take on the nation's best team, with a title at stake.

"What matters in the end is that right here, right now, they have a real nice team," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said. "We're going to have to play a terrific game."

That's not poor-mouthing, either. As deep and talented as the Seminoles are, they do have weaknesses. Two title-game losses in the past three years could leave them vulnerable mentally, especially if they get behind and start to panic. And their secondary isn't up to FSU's usual standards, having allowed 71 more passing yards per game than a season ago.

It's almost easy to envision Tech quarterback Michael Vick, a redshirt freshman who led the nation in passing efficiency, making enough plays to keep the Hokies in contention.

"I give Vick a couple more stars than the other quarterbacks we've faced," FSU linebacker Brian Allen said. "He has that great speed. He can run so well, and pass, too. We're going to take a run at him and see what happens."

That's the key aspect of the game -- whether FSU's vaunted pass rush pressures Vick into making mistakes, as the Seminoles so often have done to other quarterbacks in other bowls. If Vick survives, look for a close game.

But the upset? It won't come easily.

"We're not like Florida State; we don't have a ton of guys who were heavily recruited and all that," Beamer said. "That's why we're probably more appreciative than anyone who has ever been in position to play for No. 1. But we do have a bunch of good players who play well together and, more than anything, work hard and play hard. People around the country who know the game already respect us. I'd like to think we'll play well."

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