Saturday, September 05, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Va. Tech vs. Alabama a big game no matter what the coaches say

BLACKSBURG -- Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer wore his Orange Bowl ring to this week's news conference. You couldn't miss it. As he talked about the looming matchup with Alabama, he clenched his fists in front of him, and the jewelry shimmered under the lights of the room.

His players designed the ring. And clearly, size was a priority. The thing looked like a diamond-studded bowling ball.

The keepsake served as the world's most gaudy reminder that football seasons are long, grueling processes that culminate in December and January. It's all in how you finish, coaches tell us, rarely about how you start.

Except this year.

Tonight's Tech-Alabama matchup is a major bowl game in September. The crowd will be split. The network cameras will be rolling. And one of these teams is going to have its season destroyed before it even really starts.

"This won't make or break our season," the coaches say. "We still have games to play after this one," the players say.

But nobody's buying it. Not this year.

Back-to-back ACC championships are fantastic, but they've left many Tech fans wanting more. Expecting more. National championship chatter started before the Orange Bowl was even played, as fans realized how much talent would be returning from last year's successful team.

And now the Associated Press voters have stamped the Hokies as contenders, ranking them No. 7 in the country, which is tied for their highest preseason position in school history.

You want a playoff in college football? Here it is. At least as far as the Hokies are concerned.

The fifth-ranked Crimson Tide could suffer a narrow defeat tonight and still have a chance at the BCS national title game, thanks to the prestige of the Southeastern Conference. But for the Hokies of the ACC -- an improving league but not an elite one in most people's eyes -- a second opportunity at glory does not seem likely.

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Conversely, a victory tonight would almost certainly vault the Hokies into the top five. The remainder of the regular-season schedule contains plenty of potential pitfalls -- Nebraska, Miami, North Carolina, Georgia Tech -- but Virginia Tech likely would be favored to win every one of them.

The Hokies aren't favored tonight. They opened as a three-point underdog, but a season-ending injury to starting tailback Darren Evans last month bumped the spread up to a touchdown.

In the Crimson Tide, the Hokies face a devastating defense much like their own, an elite coach in Nick Saban and a program that oozes tradition. And Tech will do this while rotating a pair of freshman tailbacks into the game along with sophomore Josh Oglesby.

Little wonder, then, that Beamer chose Tuesday to talk about an idea he has. The coach suggested the NCAA consider adding an exhibition game to future August slates. The NFL holds preseason games, he argued. Why not let college teams smooth out the wrinkles in a contest that doesn't count?

Interesting concept, but not one that will help him now. Besides, all Beamer has to do is glance around the ACC to see that several teams are, in fact, simply tuning up this week.

Virginia plays William and Mary.

North Carolina hosts The Citadel.

Georgia Tech welcomes in Jacksonville State.

Clemson opens with Middle Tennessee.

That's normal. This is not.

But if the Hokies are ever going to collect bigger rings than the one Beamer wore this week -- if there even is such a thing -- they need to play teams like Alabama.

They need to beat teams like Alabama.

They need to win a bowl game in September.

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