NEW ORLEANS — The last time Cornell Brown was in Louisiana with Virginia Tech will forever be etched in his mind, and not just because he validated his status as the first consensus football all-American in school history by getting three sacks.
Now an assistant coach at Virginia Tech, Brown still remembers the satisfaction he got from beating Texas, 28-10, in the 1995 Sugar Bowl, because the entire buildup to the game centered on whether an upstart program from southwest Virginia deserved to be there in the first place.
Outside of Virginia Tech’s run to the national championship game here in New Orleans in 2000, it remains the most significant moment during the Frank Beamer era. And yet as Brown watched pundit after pundit criticize the Sugar Bowl for selecting the Hokies this season, he marveled at how, 17 years after Virginia Tech announced itself on the national stage, some things haven’t changed.
“It’s surprising that the program is always in question,” Brown said.
That will serve as the defining story line when Virginia Tech takes on Michigan in the Sugar Bowl Tuesday. Though the Hokies lost to just one team (Clemson) this year and are on the cusp of the first 12-win season in program history, they haven’t been able to escape questions about whether they belong in a Bowl Championship Series game this year.
Beamer has acknowledged as much this week, but that doesn’t mean the Hokies have taken kindly to being viewed as an ugly stepchild undeserving of their status among college football’s elites.
The criticism has made the players downright ornery, tired of having to defend themselves after an 11-2 campaign. With all the skepticism surrounding the Hokies’ selection, it’s easy to forget that Virginia Tech actually finished the season ranked higher than Michigan in the BCS standings.
“It definitely bothered me. We’re an 11-2 team, so there’s no reason we shouldn’t be playing in a BCS game,” defensive end James Gayle said. “We could have probably gone undefeated and people would have said we played in the ACC.”
Added running back David Wilson: “The media says that one team shouldn’t be here. So making a statement and winning this game, that’ll be powerful.”
This, though, is what irks Virginia Tech the most. It believed the days of having to prove the program’s legitimacy were over.
After all, no Football Bowl Subdivision school has more wins than the Hokies since 1995, a fact Beamer has brought up repeatedly as he faced a deluge of skeptics since becoming the first ACC team to receive an at-large berth to a BCS bowl game.
He concedes, however, that neither the Hokies nor their conference brethren have performed well in these sorts of spotlight moments. Beamer is just 8-10 in bowl games at Virginia Tech, and after last year’s 40-12 blowout loss to Stanford in the Orange Bowl, he is 1-5 in BCS bowl games. Meanwhile, the ACC is just 2-11 all-time in BCS games.
“You want to do well for the ACC because we haven’t won enough games against outside competition. It’s just a fact,” said Beamer, before addressing his own team’s woes specifically. “I think to take that next step, you’ve got to win your fair share of the BCS games. That’s reality. We’ve been and we haven’t won enough of the BCS games.”
But this latest opportunity on a national stage has a familiar ring to it — a traditional power such as Michigan going up against a Virginia Tech squad that many feel doesn’t belong in New Orleans.
Defensive backs coach Torrian Gray said it feels like the “same scenario” as that historic 1995 Sugar Bowl victory, a game in which he started at cornerback and had two interceptions. Still, despite the precedent he helped set 16 years ago, even Gray felt the need to defend Virginia Tech.
“Nobody’s really questioning Michigan about Michigan State beat them and Michigan State had a great year and Michigan is selected,” he said earlier this month. “We need to go out and win this game. We feel we have a chip on our shoulder about it. Why are you asking we don’t deserve it?
“We’ll just have to show everybody again why the Sugar Bowl committee thought enough of us to select us.”