Saturday, December 04, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: For championship, intensity is authentic

Say goodbye to the crickets of Jacksonville, the tumbleweed of Tampa.

Say hello to the blessedly cramped quarters of Charlotte, N.C.

Say so long to 75 degrees and sunny at 1 in the afternoon.

Welcome instead the darkness, the chill, the visible breath bursting out of face masks.

Most of all, enthusiastically bid farewell to the Virginia Tech mulligans, the contingency plans of the regular season, the best-2-out-of-3 scenarios, the cursed safety nets that strip so many contests of consequence.

Embrace instead the must-win game.

Good riddance to so much. At last, tonight, we have a Tech game that feels like it ought to feel, a competitive matchup with cloudless stakes.

Win? Go to the Orange Bowl and square off against a Stanford, a West Virginia -- perhaps even a once-beaten Auburn.

Lose? Cluck your way to the Chick-fil-A, where a facsimile of last year's good-but-not-great Tennessee team awaits.

When was the last time the Hokies faced such pressure to prevail? We can't say Miami. A loss there could have been brushed aside as they prepared for UVa.

We can't say North Carolina. Interesting road test, sure, but the Hokies entered that one with a two-game lead in the Coastal Division.

We can't say Georgia Tech. Grudge matches alone don't equate to win-or-else.

You could, however, make an argument for the N.C. State game. Tech had a lot to prove in that one. Legitimate questions about the offense remained. The Wolfpack stood ranked and unbeaten. A loss would have dropped the Hokies back under .500.

Yes, perhaps that's the last time a game felt big.

And that was more than two months ago.

The Hokies have been scratching off $5 lottery tickets for far too long, and it's time to take aim at a jackpot.

The wait is over, thanks to Ralph Friedgen's Terrapins mustering a mild upset over N.C. State in the regular-season finale, securing Florida State's entry from the Atlantic. The Garnet and Gold effect matters. Regardless of their record, the Seminoles just ooze import -- like those forlorn, well-dressed old guys on TV who tell you to call a 1-800 number so lawyers can "get you the settlement you deserve."

The ACC didn't deserve to get this lucky. As a whole, the league reeks like month-old clams again. But now, through sheer serendipity, they've got a matchup that looks pretty good, in a location that makes sense.

And that's where the league does deserve credit -- for its decision to move the game to Charlotte. If the ACC bigwigs need any further evidence that this was the right choice, they need only to listen to a certain sentiment from Tech free safety Eddie Whitley.

When asked to describe the atmosphere of the 2008 title game between Tech and Boston College in Tampa, here's what Whitley said:

"Felt like we were playing at Duke."

He means Wallace Wade, not Cameron Indoor. And he's absolutely right. The feng shui was lousy in person; I can only imagine what it looked like on television with all those empty seats gleaming in the hot sun.

The fans can't be blamed. It costs a lot of money to fly from Boston or Roanoke to Tampa. This was a tactical blunder by conference officials who assumed the Sunshine State would remain the epicenter of ACC excellence, which is a little like assuming Justin Bieber will still be relevant in five years.

Things change. Bad teams improve. Good teams falter. But at least now, whoever advances has a decent place to meet to decide it all.

So bundle up -- and buckle up. The safety net is gone, and so is the indifference.

They'll play for a title tonight. And for the ACC, football truly matters again.

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