When Virginia Tech and Cincinnati meet at Dolphin Stadium, both will be looking for their first BCS bowl victory and some national respect. In fact, the Hokies and Bearcats will be playing for an even greater cause on New Year's night, looking to prop up the sagging reputations of the ACC and Big East, respectively.
Like it or not, this is the least anticipated of the postseason's five marquee games, the orange-headed step-child of the BCS bowl offerings. Neither program is ranked in the top 10 or harbors a household name, so it's easy to understand why much of the country has greeted the match up with a yawn. That doesn't mean, however, that there won't be a bunch of juicy storylines before kickoff.
Ever since becoming the Big East favorite with a Nov. 8 upset of West Virginia, every Cincinnati game has been the biggest in school history. Heck, a Fort Worth Bowl win over Marshall in 2004 might be the height of its postseason history, so an Orange Bowl berth presents an opportunity that could have long-term implications. The Bearcats are a product of second-year head coach Brian Kelly, the stoic leader and rising star behind the team's success. As long as he's in the Queen City the program will be in good hands. Winners of 10 of its last 11 games since getting trounced by Oklahoma, Cincy is built on a rugged defense, outstanding special teams, and an inconsistent offense. It's also had to endure a mess at quarterback that didn't get resolved until the second half of the year.
Few were surprised when Virginia Tech won the ACC and played in the Orange Bowl a year ago. Few expected a repeat in 2008, which makes the feat so impressive. The Hokies were supposed to be rebuilding on both sides of the ball, and an opening day loss to East Carolina did nothing to change that notion. Yet, they were somehow able to patch together enough nail-biters to become league champs for the third time since leaving the Big East before the 2004 season. Plus, Tech saved its best effort of the year for the league title game, belting Boston College 30-12 behind its trademark opportunistic defense and just enough timely plays from QB Tyrod Taylor. This is far from a vintage Hokie squad, which is why Frank Beamer and defensive coordinator Bud Foster are doing some of their finest work ever in Blacksburg.
Virginia Tech needs this Orange Bowl in the worst way. So does the ACC. The Hokies got picked off by Kansas in last January's game, and is 0-for-3 on the BCS stage. Even worse, the ACC has lost eight straight BCS bowl games. Cincinnati, on the other hand, is playing with house money. Lose, and it still gets a ton of mileage from simply making the trip. Win, and it could be the turning point for a program that expects to become a regular in these types of games. Big East schools have won three BCS games in a row over Georgia, Wake Forest, and Oklahoma. A fourth straight would silence critics who don't believe the league deserves an automatic bid into the money games.
Players to watch: Where would Cincinnati be without the emergence of QB Tony Pike? It'd be bowling, but not in Florida. Buried on the depth chart before the season, he rescued the offense after Ben Mauk was denied an extra year of eligibility, Dustin Grutza got hurt, and Chazz Anderson was ineffective. At 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds, he's got terrific size, a live arm, and the ability to escape the rush. The junior also has the attention of NFL scouts after throwing 18 touchdown passes and just seven interceptions in the first meaningful action of his career. Pike will get challenged like never before when he attempts to hook up with the dynamic receiving duo of Mardy Gilyard and Dominick Goodman. While Gilyard and Goodman have combined for 152 catches and 17 touchdowns, Virginia Tech sports one of the best corner tandems in the country. Victor Harris and Stephan Virgil have 11 interceptions between them, and rarely allow receivers to get behind them.
Assuming CB Mike Mickens can return from a knee injury, S Brandon Underwood is going to have a huge night. Mickens and DeAngelo Smith will have no problems shutting down the young Hokie receivers in man coverage, allowing Underwood to cheat up to keep containment on Taylor, Darren Evans, and the rest of the Tech running game. The Hokies are 111th nationally through the air, so it's no surprise how they plan to attack the Bearcat D.
In order to stop the Cincinnati passing game, Virginia Tech needs to create pressure on Pike without having to sell out. That'll put the onus on speedy ends Orion Martin and Jason Worilds to beat a Bearcat line that's average at tackle and 91st in the country in sacks allowed. Worilds and Martin are a couple of All-ACC second teamers with 31.5 tackles behind the line and the explosiveness to get Pike out of his comfort zone.
Taylor and Evans will remain the keys to the Virginia Tech offense, but its secret weapon will be Greg Boone, the versatile 6-3, 290-pound tight end. He'll be especially effective against a pedestrian group of Cincinnati linebackers. With limited chances to make plays on the outside, Taylor will spend most of the night looking to get the ball to Boone in the middle of the field.
Virginia Tech will win if... it wins the turnover battle. The Hokies are at their best when they're wreaking havoc on defense, scoring non-offensive touchdowns, and creating short fields for the offense. That attack is going to need all of the help it can get against a stingy Cincinnati team that's 13th nationally at stopping the run and No. 1 in net punting, thanks to talented senior P Kevin Huber. If Tech is forced to travel 75 or 80 yards every time it has the ball, it'll have a hard time surpassing its season average of 22 points a game.
Cincinnati will win if... Pike peaks. The Bearcats are not going to run the ball on Virginia Tech, which means it'll be up to Pike and his receivers to keep the chains moving. This is uncharted waters for the junior, who has yet to play a game of this magnitude or a defense with so much talent in the secondary. Although he won't need to be otherworldly for Cincinnati to win, he does need to avoid the type of mistakes that can shift the momentum in the Hokies' favor. He also must find a way to get the ball to Gilyard and Goodman, the two offensive players most likely to rip off a game-changer down the sidelines.
What will happen: Cincinnati is in the same position Kansas was a year ago, universally underappreciated despite winning 11 games. The Bearcats will use that lack of respect to their advantage, handing Virginia Tech their fourth straight BCS bowl loss. While the defenses and special teams will take center stage in a physical, low-scoring game, the difference will be the Bearcat passing game. With a month to prepare, Kelly will have Pike ready to make a play or two downfield to soften up the Hokie D and put Cincy in range for the winning points. The Orange Bowl still won't be a thing of beauty, but it should get a competitive game that isn't decided until late in the final quarter.