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Stewart Mandel inside.c.football

Crashing the party

Once an ACC outsider, Virginia Tech can cap conference debut with title

Posted: Thursday December 2, 2004 1:32PM; Updated: Thursday December 2, 2004 2:50PM
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  Bryan Randall
Senior quarterback Bryan Randall has been the catalyst for the Hokies' offense.
Bill Frakes/SI

If ACC commissioner John Swofford and six of his conference's school presidents had gotten their way, the league would be hosting its first official championship game this weekend. Miami figured to be one contestant. Perhaps Florida State the other.

As it turns out, the ACC will hold a de facto title game Saturday at the Orange Bowl, and one of the participants will indeed be the newly added Hurricanes. The other, however, will be the team the conference originally didn't want.

When the ACC presidents initially voted on May 13, 2003, to proceed with expansion, it was with the intent of inviting three teams: Miami, Syracuse and Boston College. The league sent official delegations to visit the three campuses, while the jilted Big East schools left behind joined in a lawsuit against the ACC. Virginia Tech was one of the plaintiffs.

In the weeks to follow, however, politicians in the state of Virginia, most notably Gov. Mark Warner, began lobbying for the ACC to include the Hokies. Next thing you know, Virginia president John Casteen, holding a crucial swing vote that would make or break expansion, threw his support behind the Cavaliers' chief rival, and the conference found itself going to Plan B ... and C, and D. The schools involved were left hanging in suspense.

"It was kind of a frustrating time, not knowing if [we] were going to be left out or not," said Virginia Tech quarterback Bryan Randall, then a junior. "I wanted to move. If Miami was going to move to the ACC, I knew it was going to be tougher conference and I wanted a chance to be a part of it my final year."

Finally, on June 24, came the shocking announcement: Virginia Tech, not Syracuse or Boston College, would get an invite. (The Eagles eventually got in several months later.) The ACC hastily scheduled a visit to Blacksburg. Tech officials scheduled a meeting -- and happily joined the conference that was ready to shun them.

Nineteen months later, the Hokies have done nothing to disappoint their new hosts. "I'm proud that we demonstrated to the ACC that we were a good pick," said Tech head coach Frank Beamer, whose 10th-ranked squad has won seven straight games and clinched at least a share of the conference title. "We've got the ability to be a good program for them. I think they knew that, but I think a lot of people didn't think we were going to be that this year."

In their final three seasons in the Big East, the post-Michael Vick Hokies finished no better than tied for third, capped off by an immensely disappointing 2003 season, in which a team ranked as high as No. 2 lost five of its last seven games to finish 8-5. Now, Virginia Tech would be entering a tougher conference while having to replace 14 starters, including first-round draft picks Kevin Jones and DeAngelo Hall. And it would be without vaunted QB Marcus Vick, suspended for the season following two highly publicized run-ins with the law.

On paper, it was a recipe for disaster.

As it turns out, though, the only thing disastrous about the Hokies in recent years was their chemistry. It's clear that all Virginia Tech's star power may have done as much harm as it did help. This year's team, with its combination of an unsung but experienced senior class -- led by three-year starter Randall, safety Vincent Fuller and cornerback Eric Green -- and an influx of talented young players (its top two receivers are freshmen), has returned to playing the type of fundamentally sound football with which Beamer's teams have long been associated.

"Every team is different, some teams fit better than others," Beamer said. "I think the leadership on this team has been very good, pointing everybody in the same direction. They respect each other."

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The Hokies' first game of the season, in which they fought tooth and nail with top-ranked USC, should have been a sign of things to come, but the game was depicted mostly as a case of the Trojans playing sloppy. Four weeks later, Tech lost at home to N.C. State when it missed a last-second field goal, and fell off the national radar.

A week later, though, the Hokies knocked off then-No. 7 West Virginia to get things kick-started, and seemed to turn it up another notch with a spectacular 25-point fourth quarter in a Thursday night game at Georgia Tech. Randall, who no longer jad to look over his shoulder at the younger Vick, was sensational in that game and has been solid all season, while an increasingly dominant defense, led by ferocious pass-rusher Darryl Tapp, has shut down Maryland and Virginia the past two weeks.

Now, with their first BCS berth in five years on the line, the Hokies face their biggest challenge since the USC game this Saturday against No. 9 Miami. The 'Canes, particularly QB Brock Berlin, have played their best football of the season the past couple games. Then again, Tech's seventh-ranked defense will present a challenge of its own, and Randall had a big game the last time he played at the Orange Bowl in 2002.

Win or lose, Tech will still be able to hoist an ACC championship banner -- something that was once considered not just improbable, but impossible.

Whither Willingham

Could former Stanford head coach Tyrone Willingham wind up with the Cardinal's archrival?

Willingham, fired Tuesday at Notre Dame, already has been rumored for numerous jobs, most notably Washington, with which he admitted having had contact. Others wonder whether he'd consider a return to Stanford, which has an opening after firing Willingham's successor, Buddy Teevens.

The reality, however, is that neither Stanford nor Willingham are particularly interested in an encore. The school has received permission to talk with USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow, and is believed to be zeroing in on Chow and Boise State head coach Dan Hawkins. Washington, meanwhile, appears to have Willingham on its short list, but the Huskies' overwhelming first choice, as it has been all along, is Cal's Jeff Tedford, whom many believe the school will offer a monstrous contract. There have been reports out of Berkeley that a group of boosters will pool their money in order to bump Tedford's salary to the $2 million range, but others say neither that nor the necessary stadium renovation project are all that close to happening.

If Washington gets its man, one person more than any other would make sense as Tedford's replacement, a guy who knows the Bay Area and whose educational integrity would fit well in academic-minded Berkeley: Willingham.

Quick trigger fingers

And you thought Notre Dame had a short leash firing Willingham after three seasons. Take a look at a couple of the axes that fell Wednesday:

• Indiana fired its own third-year coach, Gerry DiNardo, who went 8-27 in three seasons. Apparently, the Hoosiers expected a miracle worker. Indiana hasn't had a winning season since 1994, and it took until this season to even build up a full complement of scholarship players. The Hoosiers went 3-8 but upset both Minnesota and Oregon. The school hired a new athletic director in September, Rick Greenspan, who apparently wanted to bring in his own guy.

David Cutcliffe was dumped by Ole Miss just one year after winning 10 games and taking the Rebels to the Cotton Bowl. The team did sink to 4-7 this season, but it also had to replace the NFL's No. 1 draft pick, Eli Manning, and it was the first time in six seasons Cutcliffe didn't post a winning record. Expectations are always high in the SEC, but this is Ole Miss, mind you, not Alabama or Tennessee.

Cutcliffe's firing drew the ire of at least one prominent Ole Miss alum: Archie Manning.

"How you can post five straight winning seasons at Ole Miss and then get fired in your sixth is beyond me," the legendary quarterback told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "This is a sad day for all of us."

Worth noting

Having yo-yoed with Wyatt Sexton throughout his senior season, Florida State QB Chris Rix will get the start in his final game, the Jan. 1 Gator Bowl against West Virginia. ... Florida backup QB Justin Midgett, who had the misfortune of coming to Gainesville the same year as Chris Leak, has asked for and received his release to transfer. He is looking to join another ex-Gator, Steve Spurrier, at South Carolina. ... Spurrier's hiring has caught the attention of several potential quarterbacks. Former Parade All-American Ben Olson, who has re-opened his recruitment following a two-year Mormon mission and is unlikely to return to BYU, has added the Gamecocks to his list, while South Carolina coaches have reportedly made contact with Nebraska commit Harrison Beck. ... Auburn's 11-0 regular season paid its first huge dividend earlier this week: a commitment from LaGrange, Ga., linebacker Tray Blackmon, considered the No. 1 prospect in the state of Georgia and the nation's No. 2 LB prospect according to Scout.com.

Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.

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