A little before 7 p.m. Sunday, Virginia Athletic Director Craig Littlepage called his football coach, Mike London, to inform him the Cavaliers had been selected to compete against reigning national champion Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in primetime on New Year’s Eve.
The line went silent.
“I thought that he hadn’t heard me at first,” Littlepage said Sunday night in a telephone interview. “I think he was surprised, pleasantly surprised, obviously, and wanted to make sure that he heard what I was saying.”
London wasn’t the only one caught off-guard by the surprising developments that led to Virginia playing in the second-most prestigious bowl game with an ACC tie-in. As late as 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Music City Bowl chief executive Scott Ramsey said he figured he would be able to choose either Virginia or North Carolina State to participate in his bowl. The Music City Bowl owns the sixth pick among bowl games with ACC tie-ins.
What very few people counted on was the Sugar Bowl awarding Virginia Tech the first Bowl Championship Series at-large bid in ACC history. While the Hokies are 11-2 and ranked No. 11 in the final BCS standings, they have not defeated a single team that resides in this season’s final BCS rankings. Also, the Sugar Bowl overlooked Boise State (No. 7) and Kansas State (No. 8) in order to match Virginia Tech against No. 13 Michigan.
But the possibility of Virginia ending up in the Chick-fil-A Bowl first was brought to Littlepage’s attention last Tuesday when he got a call from Chick-fil-A Bowl chief executive Gary Stokan. The bowl’s team selection committee had met for the final time the night before, and Stokan informed Littlepage the committee had determined that if neither Clemson or Virginia Tech was available for selection – meaning if both teams had earned BCS berths – then Virginia would be its choice as the ACC representative.
In a teleconference Sunday night, Stokan said the committee had made that decision after examining each of the four ACC teams that posted a 5-3 record in conference play this season. Those teams were Virginia, Georgia Tech, Florida State and Wake Forest.
Virginia was chosen over Georgia Tech and Florida State because the Cavaliers had defeated each of those teams in head-to-head matchups this year. Virginia’s 8-4 overall record was superior to Wake Forest’s 6-6 mark.
The Cavaliers “made the decision easy for us,” Stokan said.
But that was presuming that both Virginia Tech and Clemson were off the table, and after Clemson thrashed the Hokies, 38-10, Saturday night in the ACC championship game, it seemed unlikely Virginia Tech would garner a BCS at-large invite. Littlepage had his doubts even before Saturday’s conference title game.
“Admittedly, as I started to evaluate it and as I started to talk to other people, it appeared to be a long shot that the losing team [of the ACC championship game] would not be available to the Chick-fil-A Bowl,” Littlepage said. “But as I had conversations with the other bowl people, there was always the caveat in those conversations of not knowing what the relative position of the two teams in the ACC championship game might be.
“Although it seemed to be only a slight possibility, I tend to be optimistic in everything, and when I would talk to people around the university and in conversations that I had with Mike London, I always kept the Chick-fil-A Bowl in the conversation, even though it was seemingly just a remote possibility.”
Littlepage was working at the McCue Center late Sunday afternoon when he was notified that his dream scenario had played out and that Virginia would be invited to the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
When asked whether he was surprised the Sugar Bowl had picked Virginia Tech, Littlepage said: “I wouldn’t say that I was surprised because I was so happy to know that we would have an opportunity to be going to Atlanta. My reaction was more to the feelings about where we were going as opposed to anything else.
“In retrospect, certainly I’m very happy for the conference. Having two teams playing in BCS games is great for the conference, and it’s also great for the University of Virginia in this particular year because we have a chance to go to Atlanta and play a great opponent like Auburn University.”
Littlepage said that both Virginia and Auburn would receive a payout from the Chick-fil-A Bowl of $3.35 million. He also noted that the payout money earned by all of the ACC teams participating in bowl games goes directly to the conference and that the conference then redistributes the grand sum equally among its member institutions.
As helpful as that extra revenue will be, Littlepage said the opportunity to compete in the only bowl game shown in prime time on national television on New Year’s Eve is equally important.
“To have an exclusive TV time slot on New Year’s Eve, those things don’t happen too often,” Littlepage said. “So I think that out of everything that this game brings us, that kind of exposure on a national stage is significant.”
London, in a teleconference Sunday night, concurred with that sentiment and noted that playing a program like Auburn – who went 7-5 this year but won last season’s national title – doesn’t hurt, either.
“When you have an opportunity to play on a national stage against a national team with such recognition and football prominence, it can only help your program,” said London, who last week was named ACC coach of the year. “So that’s what we’re looking to do is continue to raise the profile of our program, and you only do that by playing teams that are seen out there nationally. Auburn certainly is a team that has such national recognition and national brand.”