The Virginia Tech Hokies walked through the passageways deep inside the Louisiana Superdome today, out of the tunnel from their locker room and onto the artificial turf field. More than 72,000 seats stared down at them. White lights towered above them. The place looked massive. And that was before Coach Frank Beamer told them to imagine the hundreds of cameras and the piles of screaming fans that will be in the building the next time the No. 2-ranked Hokies are here, for Tuesday night's Sugar Bowl against No. 1 Florida State.
It will be the first time in Virginia Tech's history that it has played for college football's national championship. Despite an 11-0 regular season record, the Hokies will be the underdogs, with Florida State (11-0) possessing a heap of big-time bowl experience, 27-year-old quarterback Chris Weinke and outrageously talented wide receiver Peter Warrick. Still, the Hokies have been a bit audacious themselves this season, with 19-year-old redshirt freshman quarterback Michael Vick lending an intoxicating combination of sturdiness and dazzle to a program well-known for stifling defense and special teams.
And while the Hokies haven't been here before, they realized as they looked up at the Superdome's mountaintop of a roof, they certainly are here now.
"It's an advantage anytime you go through an experience, so I'm sure it's helpful to Florida State that they've been here before," Beamer said, noting that the Seminoles have played for, and lost, the national championship two of the past three years.
"Still," Beamer added, "it comes down to this year. It's our team this year against Florida State's this year, and it's as simple as that."
After a full week of practicing and fidgeting, predicting and promising, it finally has become as simple as that, as both teams completed their pregame preparations today and got ready simply to play football. Florida State, which has been practicing at the Superdome all week, took the day off and held meetings, while the Hokies, who have been practicing on a grass field at Tulane University, held a walk-through at the Superdome.
They still were without starting wide receiver and punt returner Ricky Hall, who suffered a broken bone in his foot and is questionable for Tuesday night's game, possibly leaving sophomore Emmett Johnson to start in his place at wide receiver and freshman Shawn Witten as the third wide receiver. But the rest of the cast was present, including the versatile Vick, who led the nation in passing efficiency during the regular season, powerful running back Shyrone Stith, who rushed for more than 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns, and menacing defensive ends Corey Moore and John Engelberger.
The Seminoles have an even bigger and faster group, highlighted by Warrick and huge nose guard Corey Simon. Still, much of Florida State's game plan centers around protecting Weinke, who signed a letter-of-intent to attend Florida State the same year Vick turned 9 years old, but then played minor league baseball for six years.
"We're just getting ready for all Virginia Tech's looks and blitzes, because this is going to be a big challenge, the biggest challenge we've had all year," Seminoles offensive tackle Brett Williams said. "The main thing is that they are great athletes and they never quit. They are relentless."
Williams has been eager to get into the game since Sunday, when he said the Seminoles "were starting to get bored" just practicing. Neither team has played a game in more than 40 days, and some of the impatience began to show late last week when Moore cursed at a reporter and a few Florida State players missed their curfews. Seminoles Coach Bobby Bowden indicates that some of his team's antsiness comes simply from being hungry: Despite competing for the national championship regularly in the 1990s, the Seminoles' lone title came in 1993. They lost to Florida in 1997 and Tennessee in 1999.
"For seven years in a row, we came close and never won it, so when we finally won it, it was a big relief for me," said Bowden, whose team seems headed for a 13th consecutive season among the top four teams in the final national rankings. "Now, seven years later, it's that, 'He's never won two.' They say, 'He's always around here, but it's a shame, he's never won two. He's old, poor thing. How much longer will he live?'
"You see, I need it bad. I'm the guy who made all these national champions possible. I made [Tennessee Coach Phillip] Fulmer a national champion; I made [Florida Coach Steve] Spurrier a national champion. It's time now I got another one."