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Posted at 09:55 AM ET, 01/03/2012

Sugar Bowl: Who ya got, Virginia Tech or Michigan?


Brady Hoke and Michigan take on Frank Beamer and Virginia Tech in Tuesday night's Sugar Bowl. (Gerald Herbert - AP)
Ever since the Sugar Bowl shocked the college football world by selecting Virginia Tech to face Michigan, it seems the discussion has centered on everything but the game.

We’ve written plenty about whether the Hokies deserve to be in New Orleans, their struggles in bowl games, how two kickers got in off-field trouble and even the potential that running back David Wilson and cornerback Jayron Hosley could be playing their final game in a Virginia Tech uniform. We even explored some of the reasons behind Michigan’s resurgence this season under first-year coach Brady Hoke.

But lost in all the rhetoric that inevitably occurs when there’s a month of build-up is the fact that on paper, Tuesday night’s Sugar Bowl pits two evenly matched teams. Just look at the similarities between Michigan and Virginia Tech after the jump.

— Both prefer to establish a dominant running game, even though they have quarterbacks capable of beating teams over the top.

— Both of those signal-callers are of the dual-threat variety and capable of taking over a game with their ability to run and throw the ball.

— Both have defenses that are significantly improved from a season ago, and are coached by two coordinators (Bud Foster and Greg Mattison) considered to be among the best in the game.

— Both of those coordinators love to blitz, especially when they can get an opponent into long yardage situations.

— Neither has beaten any of the country’s elite teams this year. Virginia Tech’s best wins are over Georgia Tech and Virginia. No. 20 Nebraska, which lost 30-13 to South Carolina in a the Capital One Bowl Monday, is the only ranked team the Wolverines have gotten past this year.

— Both have struggled in bowl games. Virginia Tech is 8-10 under Coach Frank Beamer and Michigan is 2-6 since 2002.

— Neither has played particularly well in BCS games, either. Virginia Tech is 1-5; Michigan is 1-3.

So what will decide Tuesday night’s showdown at the Superdome, the Hokies’ first meeting with a Big Ten team since the 1993 Independence Bowl? In addition to my game preview that appeared in this morning’s paper, here are a few benchmarks to keep your eye on:

1) Can David Wilson gain more than 125 yards on the ground? When he does, the Hokies are undefeated this season. When he doesn’t, they’re 2-2.

2) Will Michigan rush for more than 200 yards? The Wolverines are undefeated this year when they eclipse this mark. They’re 2-2 when they don’t.

3) Will Virginia Tech give up three sacks or less? In the Hokies’ five losses over the past two seasons, they’ve allowed an average of 3.4 sacks per game. In their 22 wins, that average drops to 1.45 sacks per game.

More importantly, Virginia Tech is hoping to move past its reputation as a team that can’t win the big one, and prove once and for all it belongs in a BCS bowl game this year. As safety Antone Exum put it this week: “I think we’re on the brink of those upper-echelon teams that have those storied backgrounds. I think we need a couple more big wins in the program, and it starts here with a team like Michigan. I think this could jump-start a series of big wins.”

Will it happen? I’m not sure, but something tells me, unlike last year’s Orange Bowl, this game should come down to the wire. Count me as one who thinks the difference will be Virginia Tech’s uncertain kicking game, where senior Justin Myer will make his debut as the team’s starting place kicker. But take my prediction with an extremely big grain of salt considering I’m a Michigan grad and would never hear the end of it if I didn’t pick the Wolverines.

My prediction: Michigan 27, Virginia Tech 24

How do you see this one going? Will the Hokies prove all the skeptics wrong? Or can Michigan complete its turnaround after the tumultuous Rich Rodriguez era? Vote in the poll below and let me know what you think the keys to the game are in the comments section.

By Mark Giannotto  |  09:55 AM ET, 01/03/2012

 
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