January 7, 2011
Hokies enjoy a terrific season, but there's work to be done to take the next step

How should we, or will we, remember the 2010 Virginia Tech football season?

The record book will show a team that finished 11-3, was unbeaten in the ACC, knocked off a longtime nemesis in the league’s championship game and played in a BCS bowl. It won 11 straight games, led by Tyrod Taylor, a quarterback who shattered many school records and was named the ACC’s best player.

But it’s also a team that sandwiched all of those wins between bookend losses to the only top-10 teams it faced. And, in what most observers (including the participating coaches) felt was an even matchup, the Hokies were beaten soundly 40-12 in their bowl game by Stanford.

The biggest danger here is to form an opinion from a single snapshot. If you judged the season by the result of the Orange Bowl, not only would you be disappointed, but you’d also be unfair to the players who won a bunch of games just to get to Miami.

Even considering the bowl loss, becoming the first ACC team to run the table in a decade makes this a remarkable group. The fact that it turned an 0-2 start into 11-2 makes it even more memorable. Personally, this was one of my favorite Tech teams ever both on and off the field.

It just ended with a thud. The last time the Hokies were beaten that badly in a bowl game was following the 1997 season when No. 7 North Carolina trounced unranked Tech 42-3 in the Gator Bowl.

But this was not 1997. In fact, this was one of the best seasons in Virginia Tech history, and the Hokies were fielding one of their most talented teams.

At the end of the day, what happened in Miami counts, and it counts a lot. The result was curious for folks all over the country because, under the brightest lights of the season and in what head coach Frank Beamer called “one of the biggest games in school history,” Tech was humbled in a big way.

How did it happen? How did the Hokies have their worst performance in their biggest game? Was it a bad day at the office or something more systemic?

First, here are some observations:

1. Was Stanford that much better than Tech? At some positions, yes. Stanford was much more physical up front on both sides of the ball. Their linebackers were big and fast and made plays. That team also had a once-in-a-generation quarterback in Andrew Luck, and he had a great night. Even when pressured, he made a lot of terrific passes. Stanford would’ve been hard to beat even had Virginia Tech played a near-perfect game. So yes, they were that good.

2. How can an ACC championship team, one with a record number of all-conference players in its lineup, lose so badly to the Pac-10 runner-up? Two-part answer here. A) This was certainly a bad night at the office for the Hokies. Remember the night Dan Reeves, John Elway and the Denver Broncos lost Super Bowl XXIV to San Francisco 55-10. It happens. But … B) Defending the ACC’s record in BCS games is an exercise in futility at this point, so there’s no use in trying. As a league, the Pac-10 only had four teams with winning records, but its top two teams – Oregon and Stanford – were great this year and would’ve won a lot of conferences, including the ACC. Tech’s recent “big game” losses (USC, Alabama, LSU, Stanford) came against some elite teams and three of those won national titles. Stanford, thanks to its senior-dominated lines and a future NFL quarterback, is in that ilk. The reality: Those teams did indeed have better players than Tech. The Hokies dominated the ACC, but those teams from other leagues were mega-talented.

Certainly, Virginia Tech has won its share of “big games” in recent years. To have won four ACC titles, a team has to win some big games, right?

But even Beamer brought up Tech’s poor record against top-five teams in the weeks and days leading up to this game. No use in hiding behind the numbers, he felt. It was time to win one of these, and this seemed to be the team that would do it.

Didn’t happen.

So, what’s better? Decades-long consistency or short-term greatness?

Now this gets to the core of the matter, eh? Since 1995, only Ohio State and Florida have won more games than Virginia Tech. Seven straight 10-win seasons and 18 straight bowl games are tremendous accomplishments.

Over the past four seasons, Virginia Tech has compiled a record of 42-13. During the same period, Stanford was 29-21. One could easily project that over the next four years, the two school’s records might be somewhat similar to the previous four seasons, particularly in the post Jim Harbaugh (if he leaves) era at Stanford.

But on this one night in Miami, Stanford’s best was better than Tech’s best and it’s not debatable. Over the long haul, Virginia Tech has been the much better program, but did that matter on January 3, 2011? Nope.

This brings to mind my old college astronomy professor Dr. Gunter Wessel.

Dr. Wessel (that’s German, so it’s pronounced “Vessel”) often spoke of the star Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Did you know that Sirius is twice as bright as any other star? You can gaze skyward and see for yourself. It’s been blazing out there for millions of years, century-after-century, lighting up its area of the night sky.

Yet, when there’s a shooting star (which, as you know, is really just a rock burning up in the atmosphere), millions flock to their backyards and decks to watch it light up the sky. After three seconds, it flames out, but what a memorable three seconds it was, eh?

People gasp about meteor showers at work and school. CNN leads with the news when it’s about to happen. Your local paper lists the best time to see it.

But nobody (other than Dr. Wessel) ever raves about Sirius, and I can hear him now, barking in the front of a giant auditorium with his heavy accent. “Youse guys get all vorked-up over a tiny bit of space junk that burns out in tree seconds, vile Sirius, vich is twice as beeg as de sun, has been in de sky for 230 millions of years!”

Virginia Tech football is Sirius. It burns brighter than any other star in the ACC, but at times, a shooting star burns brighter. That, my friends, is what happened in Miami this year. Kansas had a wonderful team when it beat Tech in the 2008 Orange Bowl. Since then? Kansas has flamed out.

As we know, Frank Beamer and his staff did not build a program that will flame out, and that’s what makes Tech’s program the envy of so many around the country. Its consistency is astonishing.

But when facing truly elite teams, it seems to run into a Heisman winner (USC’s Matt Leinart, Alabama’s Mark Ingram, USC’s Reggie Bush), or guys who finish a close second or third (BC’s Matt Ryan, Stanford’s Luck, etc.), or a team that is having a magical season, and Tech falls short.

What Beamer, his staff and the Hokie Nation want is both. They want the consistency of Sirius, but to be able to burn even brighter in the biggest of games.

How to get there may seem like a quandary, but there’s no question that bigger, more physical linemen on both sides of the ball would help. Tech’s front seven on defense was gashed in this game and that doesn’t happen often. The inability to run the ball in this game – like the Boise State game – told the real story.

That’s because, in the ACC, Tech doesn’t play teams like Stanford, Boise State, Alabama or LSU. Thanks to some sensational recruiting within the region, Tech has better players than many of its ACC brothers. A record 13 players were named All-ACC, remember? But to beat truly elite teams, Tech needs even better players. It needs more elite players.

How will this season be remembered? Personally, this will go down as one of the best teams Tech’s ever had. Ever.

But it will also be a good learning experience. The Hokies are close. They’re right on the edge of taking that next step.

How Coach Beamer gets us there will be interesting to watch.

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