Back about a million years ago – on the first of October to be exact – Clemson’s Tigers went to Blacksburg, VA and made a bold and confident statement about themselves.
The Tigers’ 23-3 victory over the Hokies turned the ACC’s predicted pecking order upside down and thrust Clemson unexpectedly - and as it turned out, prematurely – into the national championship conversation.
Virginia Tech, meanwhile, regrouped and went about business-as-usual.
The Hokies, untested by a weak early-season schedule at the time they played Clemson, corrected deficiencies exposed by the Tigers and stayed the course, playing Frank Beamer’s proven brand of steady, unspectacular-but-deadly football.
They eked out a 38-35 victory over Miami; they came from behind to beat Wake Forest; they took care of their mid-season business against Boston College and, barely, against Duke.
The delivered at crunch time with back-to-back Thursday night victories over Georgia Tech and North Carolina, and then hit their stride on Saturday by going on the road and dominating rival (and ranked) Virginia 38-0 in an unexpected winner-take-all showdown for the Coastal Division crown and a spot against Clemson in the ACC Championship game next Saturday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
When the national polls and BCS Standings are released later today, there’s a chance that 11-1 Virginia Tech could slip into the No. 3 spot behind LSU and Alabama – next in waiting should Georgia upset the BCS apple cart in next week’s SEC championship game.
For the Hokies, the ACC Championship Game stakes are suddenly sky high.
For the reeling, slumping Tigers, the game sets up as opportunity to regain a bit of self-respect, self-confidence and redemption.
Clemson is, indeed, 9-3 and playing for the ACC championship. Given the half-freshman makeup of the Tigers’ roster and where Clemson was coming from when the season began, it’s a solid and respectable bottom line.
But for the Tigers, given the team they were at mid-season and where they thought they were headed, that’s absolutely no solace.
If Clemson doesn’t play better against the Hokies than it has the past four games, the ACC Championship Game is likely to be over before it starts.
Virginia Tech – an old hand at playing for, and winning, ACC championships – will do what it does, which lately centers around David Wilson running wild against opposing defenses.
After his team’s dismantling of Virginia on Saturday, Beamer called Virginia Tech’s return to the ACC Championship Game “a fantastic thing for us.”
“This team has hung in there throughout the year after the early loss to Clemson and some injuries,” he said. “It wasn't always pretty but we played hard. What happened here tonight and getting back is really special in my way of thinking."
Beamer said that Clemson “played well to get there and deserves to be there.”
“They got us the first time - that's for sure,” said Beamer. “We know what a talented group of guys they have…They're talented and were playing well (when the teams met in October). I would hope that offensively we are a little bit better now than we were at that time.
“I feel like we can play a better offensive game against them this time around. I can tell you this though, you look at them and they have good defensive people and some exceptional offensive people. It's going to take a great effort to beat those guys."
Meanwhile, Dabo Swinney says he’ll do everything in his power to turn the Tigers around.
"We have a chance to win the ACC, and as poorly as we've played the past few weeks, we can't lose sight of the fact that we do have an opportunity to play for our league's championship,” said Swinney. “That is something we haven't done in a long time, and certainly nobody was picking us to do that this year.
"We look like an immature football team right now…Virginia Tech will be a tough challenge…That's what we've got to focus on. We didn't accomplish our goal of winning the state championship, and now we have to move on to the ACC. We're very fortunate to have a chance to reach that goal and get to the Orange Bowl.
“That's what we have to look at. We have to come back on Monday, be honest, and go back to work.”