Orange Bowl pits No. 12 Cincinnati and No. 21 Virginia Tech
MIAMI -- When Cincinnati visited Virginia Tech a little over two years ago, the Bearcats went home with a 16-point loss and a valuable lesson.
They saw what a Bowl Championship Series-worthy program looks like.
"We all remember that stuff," Cincinnati defensive end Connor Barwin said. "I'm excited to play Virginia Tech again. Playing down there was awesome. Their coach is one of the best in the country."
Maybe it's just coincidence, but since that game, the Bearcats have been one of the best teams in the country, a huge turnaround capped by this year's Big East championship. And now No. 12 Cincinnati (11-2) is in the BCS for the first time, having earned another matchup with the 21st-ranked Hokies (9-4) in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1.
"The nice part about this is we prepared for this moment," said Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly, who has already won 21 games in his two seasons with the Bearcats. "That may sound crazy because we weren't even in the mix to play in a game like this."
The teams have split their eight previous meetings, and were on opposite sides of the field in the 1947 Sun Bowl -- the first postseason appearance for both -- which Cincinnati won 18-6.
"We're very, very proud and very honored to be coming back to the Orange Bowl, particularly with this football team," said Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, whose Hokies won their second straight Atlantic Coast Conference title on Saturday. "We had to overcome some different things, but as a football team, we played hard. As a football staff, we coached hard, and we're pleased to be coming back."
Virginia Tech has been to the Orange Bowl twice before, losing to Nebraska in 1996 and Kansas at the end of last season. The Hokies also lost in Dolphin Stadium earlier this season to Miami, but won three straight since to earn another BCS spot.
Since wasting a halftime lead and losing 29-13 to the Hokies a little over two years ago, Cincinnati has been on a tear, winning 28 of its past 35 games. Over that span, only seven teams -- Boise State, Oklahoma, BYU, Florida, Southern California, Hawaii and Ohio State -- have won more games than the Bearcats, who were expected to become a basketball power when they joined the Big East.
Now, there's a budding football power in Cincinnati, and there's never been a bigger stage than the Orange Bowl for the Bearcats to show how far the program -- which didn't make a single bowl appearance between 1951 and 1997 -- has come.
"You used to have to buy season football tickets to get basketball tickets," quarterback Tony Pike said.
For the Hokies, BCS trips are becoming a regular occurrence.
Besides the two previous Orange Bowl appearances, Virginia Tech has made three trips to the Sugar Bowl. The Hokies beat Texas in 1995, but lost to Florida State in 2000 for the national championship and then to Auburn in 2005.
So not only is that four straight BCS losses for the Hokies, but they'll also carry their conference's burden into Miami: The ACC has dropped eight straight BCS games.
"When you're representing a conference, there's a pride factor and I'm sure both of us share that," said Beamer, whose Hokies are the first back-to-back Orange Bowl participant since Nebraska made trips to Miami after the 1996 and 1997 seasons. "You're kind of judged on how you do against the other conferences and the ACC hasn't done as well as we should have."
Don McMillan surely doesn't want to see the ACC struggles in BCS games end anytime soon.
McMillan was the quarterback on Cincinnati's team that beat Virginia Tech in that Sun Bowl 61 years ago, and said Sunday night he was proud of the Bearcats for getting into a BCS game.
"When we played, the Sun Bowl was a major bowl game," the 87-year-old McMillan said. "There was only six of them at the time. I don't want to take anything away from this team. There aren't many guys left who played with me. I'm sure that I can speak for the rest of them. We are as proud as a peacock for this team."
At first glance, it seems the matchup of Cincinnati's offense and Virginia Tech's defense could be the one to watch.
The Hokies finished the regular season ranked seventh nationally in total defense, allowing just 277 yards per game, while the Bearcats averaged 375 yards of offense during the regular season.
Virginia Tech faced a similar challenge in last year's Orange Bowl against the potent Jayhawks, and wound up losing 24-21.
"Last year, it left a bad taste in our mouth," Hokies cornerback Macho Harris said. "This year, we're going to try to get that taste out of our mouth."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
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