FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- As Virginia Tech’s players and coaches stepped off the plane and onto the orange carpet rolled out onto the tarmac at the Ft. Lauderdale/Hollywood International Jet Center on Tuesday, they were greeted by Discover Orange Bowl officials handing out oranges, pins and handshakes.
It was a familiar scene for a program that has been here three of the past four years, but an unlikely destination for a team that began the season as cold as the city they left. Virginia Tech, which seemed doomed after losses to Boise State and -- gasp -- James Madison, has since evolved into the No. 13 team in the nation and gone on an improbable 11-game winning streak that included the program’s third ACC title in the past four years.
It was a remarkable turnaround from an 0-2 start, but those within the program agree that despite everything the Hokies accomplished this season, the Orange Bowl game against No. 4 Stanford is the game that could truly define their season and etch their place in school history.
“I think this game right here -- I told the team, if we can win this one, I’ll be talking about this team for a long time,” said coach Frank Beamer. “It’s done some special things, but trying to beat a top 5 football team and end it that way, that is the way it needs to go.”
Virginia Tech’s record against elite competition can only go up.
The Hokies are 1-26 all-time against teams ranked in the top five of the Associated Press poll and 1-2 in their past three Orange Bowl appearances. Those are facts that aren’t lost on quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who said the weather in South Florida is nice, but this is a business trip -- not a vacation.
“They’re ranked very high and have a lot of great players,” Taylor said. “I’m just looking forward to going out there and showcasing our talent on this national stage. We had a chance early on in the year against Boise State, and I think this is a similar type game as far as the media and everything that’s going to be put on us.”
The difference between now and the Boise State game, though, is that Virginia Tech has since earned its ranking with the fourth-longest active winning streak in the FBS. Heading into the season, Beamer said, expectations for a national championship might have been a little unrealistic for a defense that had to replace seven starters.
“In reality, the expectations were high, and maybe were a little bit too young in the beginning,” he said. “But we have the same players we had before the Boise State game and after the James Madison game, they were still in our locker room, and we thought they were good before those two ball games, and it turned out to be that way. We needed to get a little better in some areas and grow up and mature in some areas, but we had the same players. The big thing we had was a lot of great character kids who really held us together, kept us together.”
Not only did they keep it together, the Hokies became the first team in the history of the FBS to follow an 0-2 start with 11 straight wins. The last time Virginia Tech won 11 in a row was in 1999 when it won 11 straight en route to an appearance in the national championship game against Florida State. This is only the third time in school history that the program has had a winning streak of 10 games or more.
Defensive tackle John Graves said it’s going to be an “emotional game” for him because he is a senior, and that it will mean more because of how the season started.
“A lot of teams could’ve folded after losing two games early in the season,” he said. “The way these guys hung in there and kept fighting, it’s a great story.”
And it’s not over yet.