- Heather Dinich, ESPN Staff Writer
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FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- On the Sunday following Virginia Tech's unforgettable, inexplicable loss to James Madison, offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring called a few of his seniors into his office, looked each of them in the eye and asked, "What do you want to do?"
After an 0-2 start to a season that began with national championship aspirations, there were only two options: fold or win.
"I came out of that 20-minute, 30-minute meeting knowing that we were going to be OK because after the responses that we got from one question, 'What do you guys want to do?' And I just listened to them talk; I knew we were going to be OK," Stinespring said. "I felt better. I was able to go carry out the day and not going to crawl up on the top of Lane Stadium."
Stanford's resurgence hasn't exactly been as succinct, but for both programs the Discover Orange Bowl is about turnarounds. It's about Virginia Tech becoming the first program in FBS history to follow an 0-2 start with an 11-game winning streak and becoming the first ACC team to go undefeated in conference play since Florida State in 2000. It's about Stanford's rapid ascension under coach Jim Harbaugh from the 1-11 program he inherited when he took over in 2007 to the 11-1 team he brought to the school's second BCS bowl.
And yet, it's those very accomplishments that make this matchup about what could have been.
It's impossible not to wonder what BCS mess would have ensued had Stanford hung onto its first-half lead over Oregon or had Virginia Tech hung onto its fourth-quarter lead over Boise State. For those within the programs, it's been a seesaw of emotions between an appreciation for the opportunity to play in a BCS bowl this year and the realization that they were really close to playing for more.
"Well, yes, we're ecstatic to be here at 11 and one," Stanford defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "But at the same time, we were beating Oregon at halftime and as a team let it get away in the second half of that game, which I think was our fifth game of the season, which is our only blemish, and they're playing for the national championship.
"Virginia Tech is much the same way. They're 11 and two. They make one more first down in the fourth quarter against Boise, I guarantee they don't lose the next game to James Madison, and then you've got a BCS debate of three undefeated teams and which two to take for the championship team. So it was right there for them, too, just like it was for us. ... So I think there is a lot of similarities. Both of us are going to be happy and ecstatic where we're at, but you'll always think about that what-if."
Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said, if his team had been able to hang on against Boise State, "then you feel like you get the next game against James Madison and we're close."
Instead, James Madison, an FCS program, closed the door on Virginia Tech. The Hokies were out of the national rankings and out of respect.
That is why this year's appearance in the Orange Bowl -- Virgina Tech's third trip in four years -- means so much more.
"I think just this season, the way we started off the season was awful," quarterback Tyrod Taylor said. "Sorry to say it like that. It just didn't go as planned. I think to finish off the season with a win this year, as far as a senior goes and as far as I go and the team, it would be great."
Despite the start to the season -- or maybe because of it -- it well might have been the best coaching job in Beamer's career. Beamer and Harbaugh, under different timelines, have managed to change the national perception of their respective programs. Stanford is 28-21 since he's been head coach, including 19-6 in the past 25 games. The Cardinal were 16-40 in the five years prior to Harbaugh's first season in 2007.
Neither of these coaches, though, is done yet.
Beamer is still working on reversing Virginia Tech's 1-26 record against teams ranked in the Top 5 of The Associated Press poll. Stanford is 2-6 in its last eight bowl appearances and hasn't won a bowl game since 1996.
"We've now got our sights set on becoming 12-1," Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov said. "A lot of people have said from 1-11 to 11-1, but we're not done yet."
There is still plenty for both teams to play for.
"This would be a great win for us to get win No. 12, to get 12 wins in a row," Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. "That's the first time that would ever happen in Virginia Tech's history. To win three straight bowl games, that would be the first time to do that in Virginia Tech's history. To win back-to-back BCS Bowls, that would be the first time ever done in Virginia Tech's history. So there's a lot of things that we can really be working toward rather than looking back upon."
It's where both teams came from, though, that defines this matchup.
Heather Dinich covers ACC college football for ESPN.com.
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