My sports polygamy and the 2010 ACC Championship Game

December 4, 2010

Despite being a Navy kid and having spent my childhood up and down the east coast of our fine nation, I have, for the most part, not accumulated a lasting conflicting collection of teams that I cheer for.  Due to a combination of timing and family ties, I do have a somewhat troublesome split loyalty in college sports (particularly football).  The objects of my divided love meet today in the ACC Championship Game.

My mother was born in Virginia and her brother (hereafter referred to as my uncle) went to Virginia Tech and would go on to be their Chief Information Officer. My father is a graduate of Virginia Tech and was a student there when he met my mother.  Because of these circumstances, I was brought up a Virginia Tech fan (not because of my father as one would expect, but because of my mother’s side of the family, as you will see).  My grandparents gave me a subscription to the Hokie Huddler and I read about the exploits of the great Bruce Smith and their later win in the Peach Bowl (a much bigger deal back then before the system would bloat to allow.500 teams to go to a post-season game).  When I was living in Pennsylvania, I was actually excited when they were playing Temple, so the game would be on the local radio station (Tech had not yet joined the Big East and was very much off the national scene).  However, when I entered my teen-aged years, I started to become a bit of a fan of Florida State University, in love with the sights and sounds of the War Chant in a packed Doak Campbell Stadium.

The turn was slowed however, as (like my father, who was also the son of a Navy man) I moved to Virginia for my high school years.  Virginia Tech had joined the Big East and immediately started a streak of bowl appearances, which continues through this season (3rd longest such streak after Florida State and Florida).  While I watched  FSU through their first national championship as well, I was a closer follower of Virginia Tech football due to being in-state (the internet explosion didn’t reach my home until after this time, otherwise things may have been a little different).

Despite that proximity to Virginia Tech, though, when my senior year rolled around, I decided that I was going to spend the next fall in Tallahassee, with FSU offering a major in meteorology being one of the key factors.  With that, they were first and foremost in my heart.  This was pretty easy at the time. Even though FSU and VT were regular opponents from the 50’s through the 70’s (and a stretch from 1988-1991), they went separate ways when they joined their conferences.  In 1999, though, they were on a collision course as both tore through their schedules undefeated.

I was in the active duty Navy at the time and made a trip to see them play at Temple in November. Went to the game with a Virginia Tech sweatshirt and because it was also the day of UF-FSU, I had a Florida State t-shirt on underneath (That set up a great moment when I left the game in the middle of a group of Virginia Tech students and I took off my Tech sweatshirt to show my true colors. This was promptly noticed.)  With a portable TV on  in my car I drove to a shipmate’s house to watch the rest of the UF-FSU game, which the Seminoles won, of course, continuing the collision course.

This made for a fun Thanksgiving of course, as my uncle was their for dinner, but subsequently off to the Boston College game, which for the moment was the biggest game in Tech history as a win would seal their undefeated status and a place against FSU in the national championship game.  I loved the spectacle of our two teams meeting, but was cheering FSU through and through. That was true for my father, as well. He was Chris Weinke’s biggest fan**.

A couple of years later, I was stationed in Jacksonville and in attendance at the 2002 Gator Bowl, which pitted the two teams against each other again, resulting in another FSU victory.  This would be the last time they would meet as members of different conferences.

Tech joined the ACC in 2004 and when the conference went to a two division format the two teams were placed on opposite sides of the conference, giving the two a little bit of space as the would be scheduled to play only twice in a six year period (2007 & 2008 for the first pair of games). They ended up meeting sooner though and the result was another Florida State win.

When the conference announcement was made, I was intent on making a road trip to Blacksburg the first time Florida State played there. Alas, I was in Iraq when the two met in Blacksburg and the Hokies got their first win against the ‘Noles in the Frank Beamer era.  I was in attendance, however, when they met again in Tallahassee in 2008 and FSU won.

Going into the season, both teams were in happy circumstances in the top 25 (along with 3 other ACC teams).  For both teams, the nature of their season irrevocably changed on ApACCalypse Day, Sep 11 2010.   Oklahoma blew out Florida State while Miami, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, and most embarrassingly, Virginia Tech lost to James Madison.   While losing was bad for each teams individually, the fact that everyone lost made it impossible for there to be a redemption game for any of them made circumstances worse.  From this point on, everyone was playing to have a good season, greatness was out the window.

Before I go on with how the season played out for Florida State and Virginia Tech, I would like to offer an aside on the circumstances of the Virginia Tech-James Madison game.  Granted my opinion may be biased in this assessment, but all in all, I don’t think the loss was quite as terrible and unthinkable as it was made out to be.

At the time it was being speculated that Boise State and Virginia Tech would play on Labor Day, I was thankful for anything that would keep FSU from playing then.  FSU had played on Labor Day five times between 2004 and 2009 (against Miami every time, except for one against Clemson) and I hated it.  Besides screwing up the traditional October timing of the Miami rivalry game, I didn’t like the set of outcomes that result from playing on a Monday:

  • Win and take the next Saturday off. You have a big exciting win… and then take a break. Momentum killer.
  • Lose and take the next Saturday off. Your team has to sulk for an extra long time.
  • Win and play the next Saturday.  You kind of keep the momentum going, but not really, as you can’t play a serious team on such a short schedule.
  • Lose and play the next Saturday.  Assuming your team can turn itself around emotionally, it gets to beat up on a weakling to rebound.

When the best scenario involves losing, it’s a bad set-up.  Also, that scenario is precarious.  With the reduced number of scholarships and the subsequent dispersion of talent, those “automatic gimmes” aren’t so automatic.  Also, it’s tricky emotionally. The team plays in a big game with huge build-up and a raucous crowd. They follow it up with an un-notable opponent in a stadium that is much less lively than it was on the Monday prior. If the team is sluggish going out, then it’s going to have an uphill fight to get into the game.  That’s how it went for Florida State in 2006, when they had to come from behind to beat Troy. The point was emphasized in 2009 when Florida State spent 29 second half minutes losing to Jacksonville State, before pulling it out at the end.  From their experience, it was clear that trying to play on the short week after a Labor Day game is asking for trouble,

Virginia Tech, alas did not heed the lesson. While victorious Boise State took the week off the Hokies hosted a good I-AA team, James Madison, and lost.  The loss was promptly declared to be the “worst loss ever” for the Hokies, a point I took contention with in conversations.  Given the circumstances and consequences of playing on Labor Day, I did not see it as worse as the 1998 loss to Temple, which on a points spread basis was the worst upset on record for any team (it may still be, for all I know).  The other loss that came to mind was more appropriate to the situation: 1995 versus Cincinatti.

Virginia Tech started the season with a difficult loss to Boston College on Thursday night.  Despite having extra time to prepare for the game, they were shut out at home on a rainy day by the unheralded Bearcats (looking back on their schedule Cinicnatti wasn’t as atrociously bad as I made them to be in my memories; however, Tech didn’t have much business losing to them, much less losing 16-0).  At that point the season appeared to be lost. The next game was at Miami and even though the Hurricanes’ legendary home winning streak was over, the Orange Bowl was still a formidable place to play. Morseo given that Miami had a 71 game winning streak against unranked opponents.  The Hokies’ defense carried the day however, and Tech won 13-7 and proceeded to go on a tear.  The balance of the 1995 season featured Virginia Tech dominance as they won the Big East and went to the Sugar Bowl. That game was a microcosm of the season as they fell behind to Texas 10-0 , but rallied to win 28-10.

So, Frank Beamer was not in unfamiliar territory when the Hokies found themselves 0-2.  The next game was against East Carolina, a series which has always played like a rivalry game.  An article in today’s Washington Post details the beginning of the Virginia Tech turnaround centered around that show-down.  As was the case in 1995, VT has rolled since the first two losses. This despite having a seemingly grueling three game stretch against Georgia Tech followed by games at North Carolina and Miami.

Florida State, on the other hand, has had a tougher time of it.  The Oklahoma game was awful.  I had never seen the FSU defense so overwhelmed; Oklahoma was playing so fast and formidable  that it appeared that it was men against boys.  While I had watched a few games where FSU’s defense clearly wasn’t up to the challenge, the Oklahoma game was of a different magnitude.  After three easy wins against  inferior teams, the ‘Noles  thrashed Miami and the Florida State faithful were thinking “We’re back!”.  A Thursday night loss against NC State (caused by a fumble at the end of  the would-be game-winning drive) actually fit into that pattern a bit, because FSU’s first ACC loss was on the road on Thursday night. However, the subsequent loss, on a wide-right field goal in a  Homecoming game  against UNC, brought forth rage and panic.  It was clear that FSU was back in the “every game a fight” mode that made previous seasons nervous affairs for Florida State fans.  Florida State squeaked through its next two games and as detailed in my previous post, rolled over Florida as Maryland beat NC State to let FSU into today’s game.

Having watched both teams closely over the course of the season, I deem Virginia Tech to be the better team. Florida State playing its best could certainly beat them. However, I think Virginia Tech is in the stronger spot emotionally, having had their focus on redemption the whole season, with 1995 as the template. FSU, on the other hand, has been on a week to week basis and may be spent by the victory over Florida.

Other factors favoring Virginia Tech concern the game’s location. It will be played in Charlotte and Hokie fans have a trend of taking over stadiums in North Carolina.  While FSU will have a noisy contingent, I expect the crowd will make it seem like the game is Lane Stadium. Also, game-time temperature is forecast to be 40° with a probability of light rain.  Conditions much more like Blacksburg than Tallahassee.  I expect it to be a battle of running games in which the Hokies come out top.

However, I will be unabashedly happy if that is not the case. Go ‘Noles!

** For those wholly unaware or who have forgotten, Chris Weinke was the quarterback of Florida State under a set of unusual circumstances.  He was recruited by FSU to play football, but went into professional baseball instead .  He didn’t make it to the pros, but unlike most, he didn’t squander his signing bonus, so he was in strong financial shape when he left baseball to show up as a 24 year old freshman in Tallahassee in 1997 at the bottom of the depth chart.  Dan Kendra was expected to be the starter in 1998 before blowing out his knee in spring practice causing him to miss the season. Weinke overtook Marcus Outzen and ended up being the starter.  He set a school record by throwing six interceptions in a loss to NC State that year. However, starting with the very next game, he went on a streak of completions without an interceptions that broke FSU and ACC records.  He was at the later end of that streak when he suffered a neck injury against Virginia that not only ended his season but could have ended his career (it was precariously close to being a paralyzing.)  He returned, of course, for FSU’s unbeaten season.  Despite not being much of a sports fan (my passion for sports comes from my mother), he followed FSU football closely during that season, cheering Weinke on the whole way.  True to his non-sports fan nature, he was more excited about  Weinke’s financial managment and maturity than any of the other things I’ve described.

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