Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Win or lose, let's call this a big game

NEW ORLEANS -- First, we need to make up our minds. You, me, all of us.

Is tonight's Sugar Bowl a big game?

That might sound like a silly question. Of course it's a big game, right? It's a BCS game. It's against a traditional power. It's on national TV. It has implications for the ACC, which has two teams in big-money bowls for the first time. It has rankings implications for Virginia Tech's program heading into next year.

But the fact is, we struggle with defining big games. Not so much before they're played, but after they're played. We're notorious flip-floppers when it comes to this. So when we make up our minds - deadline is 8:30 p.m. - we need to stick with the definition regardless of the result.

Think about it. Tech's game against Virginia this season was billed as one of the biggest in the history of the rivalry. We all agreed it was huge. Winners would get the Coastal Division crown; losers would spend a year hearing about how they failed with so much at stake.

Then the Hokies won 38-0.

No longer a big game.

Tech's matchup with Georgia Tech this year? Very similar. It was an enormous test for the Hokies to go on the road and face a team with an offense that had given them trouble. Winner would control its fate in the division; loser would be all but eliminated.

Then the Hokies won 37-26.

No longer a big game.

There are plenty of other examples - ACC championship games, Thursday-night showcases, even that 2009 Orange Bowl against Cincinnati - where Tech has succeeded on the big stage but hasn't gotten full credit for it.

That Orange Bowl loss to Kansas in 2008 is remembered as one of the program's most high-profile flops. But had the Hokies won it, what would have we all said? "Kansas. †Come on, those one-hit wonders didn't deserve to be there anyway. They played nobody."

"It seems like in this business, it's only a big game if you lose," Tech defensive line coach Charley Wiles said. "Going to Georgia Tech, Carolina, if you beat those teams it doesn't matter any more. Beat Virginia 38-0, who cares? It seemed like it wasn't a big game. It was going in, but it ain't coming out when you beat their butt. That's just the way it is."

The difference with a bowl game, of course, is the lack of redemption opportunities that follow. If the Hokies think they're getting disrespected for getting blown out by Clemson - and based on their comments, they do - then just imagine what it'll be like this offseason should they fall to Michigan.

"After the Stanford loss last year, we went nine months without playing a game and not being able to get a win," Tech tight end Chris Drager said. "That was probably the worst, at least for me."

Bowl games, for better or worse, serve as the signature at the bottom of a team's schedule. Few would argue that Tech had a better season two years ago than they did last year, but a Chick-fil-A Bowl victory over Tennessee made the offseason a lot more tolerable for the players.

The chasm between the two vibes is wide and deep.

"I think it's drastic, especially when you start going back to practice for the spring game and all that stuff," Tech offensive tackle Blake DeChristopher said. "You have that bitter taste in your mouth of losing. That's not a good feeling to have. And the coaches feel the same way."

So we all can agree this is a big one, right? That means if the Hokies lose it, we'll have the right to question the legitimacy of their being here in the first place. We'll add another one to the "big game" loss column, and that will be something they'll have to wear like a scarlet "L."

Should they win it, though, we can't backtrack. No talking about how Michigan was technically a year away from being a true national power again. No deriding the Big Ten as a league that had a down year. Just credit to Tech for winning when it really mattered.

Sound fair?

Good. Now let's bring on the big one.

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