NEW ORLEANS -- Before the SEC invades the Big Easy for the national title game, the Allstate Sugar Bowl kicks off Tuesday as No. 11 Virginia Tech and No. 13 Michigan meet in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Although the matchup has been panned nationally, it pits two teams with somewhat similar profiles and the same goal: a place among the nation's elite.
Bloggers Heather Dinich (ACC) and Adam Rittenberg (Big Ten) are on hand and debate the matchup.
Adam Rittenberg: HD, always a pleasure. Looking forward to ringing in the new year in NOLA. Few outside the Ann Arbor and Blacksburg areas were too thrilled to see this matchup in the Sugar Bowl, but there's no shortage of intriguing storylines. Michigan is back in a BCS bowl for the first time in five years. Virginia Tech is trying to win just its second BCS bowl game in the past seven attempts under coach Frank Beamer. The Wolverines ended the season playing arguably their best football, as they thumped Nebraska and ended The Streak in The Game against Ohio State. Virginia Tech, meanwhile, comes off of its worst effort of the season after being crushed by Clemson in the ACC title game. What's the mood of the Hokies heading into a game where few think they belong?
Heather Dinich: Adam, let me tell you the emotions have been charged, and the disrespect hit defensive coordinator Bud Foster particularly hard. To put it mildly, he’s a bit peeved anyone doubts Virginia Tech’s place in the BCS. Frank Beamer is making no apologies, and his son, Shane, is following in his footsteps. The players know, though, that they need to perform better in these big games in order to gain some national respect. It's hard to forget the drubbing they took from Stanford last year in the Discover Orange Bowl. Here’s the thing, though: The Hokies are ranked higher than Michigan in the BCS standings. Why aren’t the Wolverines spending as much time as the Hokies answering why they deserve to be there?
Rittenberg: It's because of the way Michigan finished as opposed to Virginia Tech. You're always judged by your last game, and Michigan's last was a win against Ohio State, its first in the series since 2003. The Wolverines also put together their best performance of the season the week before against Nebraska, crushing the Huskers 45-17. While many believed a Michigan State team that beat Michigan and won the Legends division was more deserving of a BCS at-large berth, the Spartans didn't finish in the top 14 of the final BCS standings. Few thought a Michigan team that finished in the top 14 would be passed over, especially a Michigan team that hadn't been to a BCS bowl since the 2007 Rose and boasts one of the best brand names and largest fan followings in the country. Oh, did I touch a nerve bringing up the fan base thing? I know Virginia Tech had its, um, difficulties with Sugar Bowl ticket sales. C'mon ACC, you got an at-large berth! Time to act like a big-boy conference!
But I digress. Let's talk about what's happening between the lines. Michigan's defense has been the biggest reason why the team won 10 games. No unit in college football made a bigger one-year improvement than the Wolverines. But they'll be tested in this game by Virginia Tech's rushing attack, led by the speedy and talented David Wilson. How do you think Virginia Tech's offense matches up against Greg Mattison's D?
HD: I think they're going to struggle, to be honest with you. They couldn't get anything going against Clemson's defense, and Michigan's is better. It all starts with the running game, though, and I think Wilson has a chance to get his yards and will fare better than the season-low 32 yards he had in the title game. With that being said, Virginia Tech can’t afford to get into too many third-and-long, and second-and-long situations. What worked for Clemson was the fact that the Tigers were pretty good on first downs and took away some of the Hokies’ ability to run and forced them to win with the passing game. They began to press, never got into a rhythm, and Virginia Tech isn’t at its best when it’s one-dimensional. They’ve been good up front, though, and they've got a talented group of receivers, and one thing that’s really fun to watch is defenders trying to bring down "Thomas the Tank." Quarterback Logan Thomas is built like Cam Newton, and he’s not easy to tackle. He’s been great in short-yardage situations. He's no Denard Robinson, though, and to me that's the main task for the Hokies: Slowing down Robinson. How do you think he'll fare against Bud Foster's defense, which has been one of the best in the country this year despite numerous injuries to key players?
Rittenberg: This is the game's pivotal matchup, in my view. If Robinson can do his best Tajh Boyd impression on Tuesday night, Virginia Tech is in trouble. But Michigan fans thinking the Hokies' defense will lie down again likely are mistaken. Virginia Tech always has tremendous talent on defense, and Foster, like Mattison, is one of the nation's best defensive coordinators. The good news for the Wolverines is Robinson ended the season playing his best football. He dealt with injuries midway through the season and regressed as a passer while adapting to an offense that maintains the look of a spread but features pro-style passing elements (deeper drops, more vertical routes). Robinson seemed to find his groove against Nebraska and had arguably his most polished performance as a Wolverine against Ohio State, completing 14 of 17 passes for 167 yards and three touchdowns and adding 170 rush yards and two scores. If he comes near that effort in the Dome, the Hokies are in trouble. But Robinson also makes mistakes. A ton of them. He has thrown 14 interceptions this season, three more than he had all of 2010. Michigan's defense repeatedly bailed him out and didn't make those giveaways sting.
How do you expect Foster to approach Robinson as well as running back Fitz Toussaint, a guy few are talking about who performed very well in Big Ten play?
HD: It’s hard because they’re both so talented, but even with Toussaint’s success, I think Robinson has to be the focus in the practices leading up to this game. A lot of times coaches will assign a guy who's "a spy," to constantly watch Robinson, and I would guess Foster would take that same approach and use a linebacker or strong safety to watch Robinson on each play and mirror him. The other thing is just in the preparation for him. They've got to spend plenty of time getting ready for the speed option, quarterback counter, things like that, and his speed will be hard to simulate in practice. The good thing for the Hokies is that they’ve grown used to going against former quarterback Tyrod Taylor in practice every day, so they know what it's like to face a quarterback who can move. When Robinson is most dangerous, at least to me, is when he goes to throw and nobody is open and he just makes something happen with his feet. That's something defenses can't account for. By having that spy, though, it takes away from everything else and limits coverages and blitzes, but teams have to do it or they’re in trouble. This is why Foster has one of the most lucrative contracts in the country, though, to figure this out. If I really knew the answer, I might put my name in at Penn State. Like you said, this is the biggest key to the game, but it’s not the only one. What’s your final verdict on what will separate these teams in the end?
Rittenberg: I'm officially starting the Dinich-to-Penn State buzz! The game could come down to whether Virginia Tech can force turnovers and, more important, make Michigan pay for its mistakes. The Wolverines survived a lot of Robinson errors in the first 10 games, thanks largely to their defense. If Robinson indeed has moved past those mistake-prone days, as appeared to be the case against Nebraska and Ohio State, it will be tough for Tech to slow him down for four quarters. Another big key, at least for Michigan, is Toussaint and the ability to have a second rushing threat in the backfield. Fitz recorded 120 rush yards or more in four of Michigan's final five regular-season games. On the other side of the ball, it's all about Wilson vs. Michigan's defensive line. It's strength against strength, and the team that has the edge will be in good shape to win this game.
OK, you get the last word. What factors will determine who leaves the Superdome with a sweet feeling Tuesday night?
HD: Well, like we mentioned I think the biggest factor will be Virginia Tech's defense against Robinson, but to break it down a bit further, I think the Hokies have to win up front on the defensive line. They've got a young group, including two true freshmen at one of the defensive tackle spots, and Michigan's offensive line has four guys who have started all 12 games. That group is a big reason why Toussaint and Robinson have had so much success. One more key for the defense would be to make the stops on third downs. Michigan is No. 12 in the country in third-down conversion percentage. Also, I think it’s important Virginia Tech gets back to running the ball well so it can control the clock. They've got to sustain some drives, and when David Wilson is rolling, so is the rest of the offense. Virginia Tech is ranked higher in the final BCS standings, but to me, they’ve got the bigger challenge and more to prove. See you in the Dome.