Saturday, September 19, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: In next 2 games, Hokies can prove they never left

Since when did Chris Berman start doing college football?

Maybe he isn't. Maybe it just seems that way. Flip on ESPN, and all you hear is "Back! Back! Back! Back!"

First Florida State was "back." Then Miami beat the Seminoles, so the Hurricanes were "back." Nebraska waxed a pair of Sun Belt Conference foes to start this season, and there's buzz that perhaps the Huskers are "back."

Back-to-back "Back Bowls." That's what awaits Virginia Tech beginning today, when Nebraska visits a sold-out Lane Stadium. Next week it'll be Miami in town, fresh off Thursday night's drubbing of Georgia Tech.

"Swagger is back" read the headline in Friday's Miami Herald.

"UM shows signs of returning to dominance" read a column headline in the South Florida Sun Sentinel. The piece began with a text message from Bernie Kosar, the Hurricanes quarterback from the mid-80s. Any guess what the text said?

That's right. "We're back."

And maybe they are. And maybe Nebraska is, too. The Cornhuskers moved up to No. 19 in The Associated Press poll after hammering Arkansas State last week. The Hurricanes could jump into the top 15 after Thursday's prime-time victory.

So for two straight Saturdays, Blacksburg will become Backsburg. The nation will be tuning in, mostly to see if two of the most tradition-rich programs in college football history have recaptured the "it" factor that produced a combined 10 national championships from 1970-2001.

What better time than now for the Hokies to show they've never left?

Tech whiffed on its first opportunity against a revitalized historic program, falling to Alabama in the opener. But that was before freshman tailbacks Ryan Williams and David Wilson showed off their enormous potential by becoming the first combo in program history to churn for at least 160 yards apiece in the same game.

Yes, the opponent was only Marshall. But the tandem's raw skills -- speed, power, one-cut instincts -- were evident regardless of the would-be tacklers. Besides, blowouts against lesser foes are to be savored these days. Just ask Florida State, Duke, Maryland and Virginia, all of which have struggled against I-AA teams this year.

Likewise, Nebraska's 87-12 margin of victory against a pair of I-A lightweights means the Huskers are doing something right. But second-year coach Bo Pelini has stopped well short of pronouncing the Huskers back, pointing to today's game as a strong indicator or how far they've come -- or how far they've yet to go.

And that's the rich irony here. When Tech coach Frank Beamer thinks college football, he thinks Nebraska. He gushes about the tradition, the titles, the sea of red. Who could have imagined that a program such as that would look to Tech as a barometer?

But it makes sense. While the Huskers posted a run of five straight 10-win seasons from 1993-97, they're only two years removed from a 5-7 campaign that featured a 76-39 loss at Kansas. Now it's the Hokies who are among the nation's most consistent winners, shooting for their sixth straight 10-win season and their third consecutive ACC title.

There's no reason for Tech to go backwards now. Wins over Nebraska and Miami both would register big-time on the national stage, likely vaulting the Hokies into the top 10.

And all this Bermanesque chatter about "Back-back-back-back?"


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