Just a month ago billed as the game of the year in college football, Saturday's meeting between No. 18 Virginia Tech and No. 1 Miami now boils down to a team playing for pride against a team playing for a championship.
The Hokies, who at the start of November were 8-0 and ranked third in the country, are now on the bottom of the Big East bowl mix. Even with a win today, Virginia Tech (9-3, 3-3) is looking at no better than the Continental Tire Bowl and could end up in the San Francisco Bowl or Motor City Bowl.
The sting of that would be lessened with a victory today. A win ensures Virginia Tech its fifth 10-win season since 1995; a loss means its first losing Big East record since 1993.
"This isn't the game we thought it was going to be, but that doesn't make it any less important to us," Virginia Tech sophomore quarterback Bryan Randall said. "In some respects, this is our bowl game."
The Hurricanes, meantime, are riding a nation-best 33-game win streak and are one win away from their second consecutive unbeaten regular season and a berth in the Fiesta Bowl to face Ohio State for the national title. Miami (11-0, 6-0) has won five national championships since 1983, including last season, but has never claimed back-to-back crowns.
"Clearly, the pressure in this game is all on us," Miami Coach Larry Coker said. "We know we have to win."
After a three-game skid in November -- during which they dropped consecutive games to Pittsburgh, Syracuse and West Virginia -- the Hokies hope they have sufficiently rebounded to make the kind of run at the Hurricanes that nearly dashed their Rose Bowl hopes a year ago. Miami won that game, 26-24, after Virginia Tech wide receiver Ernest Wilford dropped a two-point conversion pass in the end zone in the game's final minutes.
"I've been waiting for this one," said Wilford, who in the midst of his best season is six catches away from breaking the Hokies' season reception mark of 46 set by Mike Burnop in 1971. "I'm proud of what I've done this year, but of course I still think about it and about what might have been."
There are an awful lot of those what-might-have-been thoughts circulating in Blacksburg these days. Coach Frank Beamer, whose team broke its losing streak with a 21-9 win over rival Virginia last week, has rarely spoken publicly since the three close losses. But Beamer said he hasn't lamented the fact that the Hokies were one very realistic play away from winning each.
"You know, you can say, 'Turn this one play around [and we've had won]' and all that, but in the end you have to go out there and come away with a victory," Beamer said. "That's the only thing that makes you feel better. And we feel better right now. We've got some of that confidence back."
Virginia Tech senior safety Willie Pile said the Hokies' rejuvenated attitude will be enough to turn this game into the kind of knockdown, drag-out showdown that was earlier predicted.
"We aren't just going down there to play spoiler," Pile said. "We're going to beat a great team and prove that we are also a great team."
If it were scheduled for Blacksburg -- where snow covers the fields and temperatures are below freezing -- onlookers might have given Virginia Tech a shot. But playing in the south Florida sun -- and with the Hurricanes having so much more at stake -- Miami is nearly a three-touchdown favorite.
Coaches familiar with both programs agree that Miami isn't likely to fall. They also acknowledge, however, that Virginia Tech has the kind of team that could give test the Hurricanes.
Miami's weakness -- and it has very few -- is its run defense. The Hurricanes are yielding 165 rushing yards per game, and were burned for 296 yards on the ground by Florida State, 363 by West Virginia and 193 by Pittsburgh, its three closest games.
Though all have solid rushing attacks, none posed the combined threat that Virginia Tech senior Lee Suggs (1,200 yards, 17 touchdowns) and sophomore Kevin Jones (835 yards, nine touchdowns) do.
"Those are two great backs," Virginia Coach Al Groh said. "When you watch them on television, they're fun to watch. But if you have to watch them from the other sideline, they're pretty hard to deal with."
So, too, is Miami junior tailback Willis McGahee (1,481 yards, 21 touchdowns), who along with senior quarterback Ken Dorsey, is a Heisman Trophy hopeful.
"I said last year Miami was the best college football team I've ever seen," Beamer said. "And I think they're better this year. How many times have you ever seen a team with two legitimate Heisman contenders on the same team, in the same year? They just amaze me."