Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Hokies played BCS system and pulled off a huge upset

The burly football coach wore a mischievous smile that day.

Mark Mangino didn't mind the question. He'd heard it dozens of times throughout the season, particularly in September - criticism of the schedule his Kansas team had played, skepticism of the validity of his squad's record.

And down there in that Miami heat, a new set of reporters (myself included) were grilling him on it again.

"I've said this before, and I'll say it again: Nobody in December remembers who you played in September," Mangino said that day. "It's what your win-loss record is. And apparently our strategy must have worked. We're here at the Orange Bowl today."

That was December of 2007. Mangino's Jayhawks, who'd fattened up on the likes of Central Michigan, Southeastern Louisiana, Toledo and Florida International on their nonconference schedule, were about to play Virginia Tech in an Orange Bowl that many thought they did not belong in.

Kansas had not won its conference. Kansas had beaten only one ranked team all season - No. 24 Kansas State, which finished the season 5-7 and well out of the polls.

But the Jayhawks had compiled 11 wins. Turned out that was enough to get them an at-large berth to a BCS game.

Sound familiar?

This is nothing new, guys. Tech's surprise at-large bid to the Sugar Bowl is prompting a lot of outrage from detractors who think there aren't enough quality wins on the Hokies' resume. And you know what? Those detractors are right. Tech had four shots against ranked opponents this season and went 2-2, including Saturday's 38-10 loss to then-No. 21 Clemson in the ACC title game. The two ranked teams the Hokies beat, Georgia Tech and Virginia, each finished 8-4 and out of the polls.

But the reality is this: The Hokies played the schedule game perfectly - and won.

Mangino nailed it. Nobody cares who Tech defeated in September, the much-maligned quartet of Appalachian State, East Carolina, Arkansas State and Marshall. All that matters is the seductive 11-2 record and those hoards of maroon-clad folks who will flock to New Orleans to see their team play Michigan.

Some argue Tech's inclusion - rather than, say, Baylor, Boise State or Kansas State - proves that the BCS is all about money. Stop the presses! In other news, "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" is all about a Grinch who stole Christmas.

Come on, now. Is there anyone left in this country who believes the system is about anything else?

It was about money before, and it's about money now. The winners are those who stack the deck to give themselves the best chance of exploiting the system. The winners this year are Tech coach Frank Beamer and his athletic director, Jim Weaver, who crafted a nonconference slate so pillowy that TempurPedic is considering an endorsement deal.

And this should not be forgotten, either: The winners are Tech fans, who've proven over the years that they will travel to bowl games in general and the Sugar Bowl in particular. Not only that, but they jam into Lane Stadium for the Arkansas States and the Appalachian States and the James Madisons, even when attendance at sporting events across the board is down.

The Hokies are going to be this year's poster children for all that's wrong with the BCS. They should feel no need to apologize for this. Instead, they should feel honored. They outfoxed the suckers who think fashioning a difficult schedule is the key to cracking the BCS code.

And for the next four weeks, they should do what Mangino did in 2007: Grin and remind people where they are, regardless of how they got there.

They should laugh off the criticism as they're catching beads from a balcony, shrug off the skeptics while diving into bowls of gumbo.

And then they should follow Mangino's lead one last time.

They should go out and win the bowl game.

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