Life as an underdog
Florida State knows Virginia Tech's position
Posted: Monday January 03, 2000 07:32 PM
Frank Beamer (left) and Bobby Bowden may have been chummy on Monday, but only one coach will leave New Orleans victorious. AP
By Stewart Mandel, CNN/SI
NEW ORLEANS -- On the eve of his team's Sugar Bowl showdown with big, bad Florida State, Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech coach/alum/Hokie for life, espoused to a room full of the nation's scribes why being the underdog just feels so right.
"I think if people are pulling for an underdog, and I know that's what people like to do, I think they'd like to root for this Virginia Tech football team," he said Monday. "We're a team that came from almost nowhere, represent a good academic school, full of a bunch of guys that really worked hard."
It's easy to get caught up in the David vs. Goliath theme of Florida State, winner of more games the last decade than anyone, contesting Virginia Tech, loser to Temple just last year. But any significant advantages the No. 1 Seminoles have on the No. 2 Hokies aren't for the players on the field.
And the coaches know it.
"I would say if you looked at our overall team, the top 80 guys, we may have more speed than them," said Bowden. "But their top 11 guys line up right with our guys. And the problem is, I can only put 11 of them out there, I can't put all 80."
Bowden's Seminole football factory has the luxury of attracting talented youngsters from around the globe, while Beamer admits to rarely recruiting outside of a familiar region.
But Bowden knows well the fine line between juggernaut and also-ran. Before the Seminoles became a decade-plus Top 5 team, they were, said Bowden, "everybody's Homecoming," playing road games at Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Pitt and LSU during a single 1981 stretch, his sixth season there.
Beamer is seemingly in the process if doing the same thing at Virginia Tech, taking a previously average program and gradually building toward what could come Tuesday night. After a 2-8-1 season in '92 that almost got him fired, Beamer has reeled off seven straight bowl seasons and stands one win from an improbable pinnacle.
"For the most part in college football, where you're at is where you're gonna be," said Beamer. "That's why I've been so proud of what we've been able to do, to go against the grain a little bit."
But recent history has not been so kind to the little guy in terms of happy endings. Kansas State has come up just short the past two seasons. Northwestern rose from the ashes in '95 and '96 only to return to the Big Ten cellar by '98. Meanwhile, the decade's national champions read like a book on college football history -- Nebraska, Alabama, Michigan etc.
If Florida State is to win comfortably Tuesday, as expected, the reasons may already be in the New Orleans air like the smell of jambalaya from a sidewalk cafe.
The national championship is played on a substantially larger stage than anything else in college football. Rivalry games, long road trips, awards ceremonies -- none of it compares to spending a week among the distractions of a bowl trip, the hordes of media and the monotony of repeated practice just for one, monumentally important three-hour game where one play could determine history.
In this key area, Florida State is a veteran. Virginia Tech is not. And it shows.
"This is my third [championship game] in five years," said FSU center Eric Thomas. "I'm excited to be playing for the national championship, but I'm not like 'woo hoo' when I see the cameras."
FSU players have been all-business, all week, pleasing the coaches in practice and choosing their words carefully to the public. As has been reported, one Hokie, Corey Moore, did not.
"You don't see our team talking trash, saying what we're going to do to those guys," receiver Ron Dugans said. "They're either talking trash because they're scared, or maybe they're overconfident like we were last year."
If Virginia Tech loses, it would not be as devastating as some might think. The program has arrived, the effect on recruiting has been great, and with Michael Vick only a freshman, the future looks very bright in Blacksburg.
The future always looks bright when you're wearing Garnet and Gold, yet there's an unprecedented sense of urgency around Tallahassee. The thought of Bowden coming up short again despite having perhaps his most talented team ever is too much for some to stomach. Mainly Bowden himself.
"When we won the national championship in '93, it was a big relief, like 'Oh, the old man finally won one,'" he said. "Now here we are, [six] years later, they're probably saying, 'It's a shame a guy that old hasn't won two.' They're probably wondering 'How much longer is he going to live?' So I need to win."
Reporters have suggested as many as 10 other teams would be here if they'd played Virginia Tech's schedule. That, of course, is far-fetched. Besides, between Bowden's sense of urgency and a group of vaunted fifth-year seniors yet to get a ring, FSU could be hard for anyone to beat the way they'll step onto the Superdome turf Tuesday night.
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