NEW ORLEANS -- As far as big wins go, none has loomed larger for Virginia Tech than its 28-10 Sugar Bowl win over Texas in 1995.
At the time, it was the most prestigious bowl appearance the Hokies had ever been in, and Virginia Tech overcame a 10-point deficit to beat the Longhorns and catapult the program into the national spotlight.
"It gave us an opportunity to step out into the national prominence to be able to beat Texas here [and] at that time I think signified our arrival into what we hoped to be a top 10, top program year in and year out in this country," offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring said. "And I remember after that game, coach [Frank] Beamer in the locker room saying, 'We're going to be back and we're going to be better. And I was in the back thinking, 'Whoa, slow down, little fella. Enjoy the moment here. You're a little giddy, I understand. And he was right."
They were back for the 2000 Sugar Bowl -- to play for the national championship.
They were back for the 2005 Sugar Bowl -- to face No. 3-ranked Auburn.
And now they're back again -- this time to prove they still belong here.
Despite all of the success Beamer's program has had, despite its history in one of college football's most prestigious bowls, Virginia Tech enters Tuesday night's game bearing the burden of validating its place in history as the ACC's first BCS at-large selection. Much like in 1995, a win in the Sugar Bowl could help elevate Beamer's program to another level and broaden the respect beyond the walls of the ACC. Those within the program know they haven't yet reached their ceiling, but a 1-4 record in BCS bowl games has weighed them down in the eyes of critics. A win over Michigan would help change the perception that Virginia Tech's success on the big stage has been confined within the ACC.
"You think back to Texas, and you think back to Auburn and the national championship game," said receiver Danny Coale, "Tech's played in some pretty big games in New Orleans and this is one of them, going against Michigan, a storied program, I think a program that Tech wants to be [like], with the winning tradition, and I think we're on our way there and this is an important step in the process."
Judge Virginia Tech on its performance against Michigan, but whatever you do, don't tell defensive coordinator Bud Foster that the Hokies didn't deserve their Sugar Bowl bid. Foster said the program has already paid its dues, and that the questions surrounding Virginia Tech's place in the BCS this season are unwarranted and unfounded.
"I'm really kind of agitated about it, to be honest with you," Foster said. "Everybody is talking about us, but Michigan is ranked lower than we are. Nobody is saying crap about them when it's all said and done. Instead of talking about how we've made it, and we're an up-and-coming football program, a young, exciting team. Instead of talking about that, all they're doing is bitching we got in the bowl game. There have been other years we probably deserved to go and we didn't go. And so it just -- it's just agitating, it really is. It's a shame for the kids. Here you've got people that half of them don't even know what the hell they're talking about, but that's what it is. I'm agitated at all media personnel right now. It just pissed me off, to be honest with you. It just pissed me off. Excuse my language, but it did."
"I just believe that when you've won more games in college football than anyone in the country since 1995, you've proven yourself," he said. "We're not just some team that this is our first time. I can understand the reasons they say we don't belong, but at the same time, I can make a case for or against every at-large team there was. That's part of it. We can't control it. Sitting around talking about it isn't going to help us beat Michigan, but we feel like we've had a heck of a season. When you win 11 games, that's a hell of a season. I don't think we have to apologize for anything, in my opinion."
It's not apologies that the critics are looking for, though, it's major bowl wins, and Virginia Tech hasn't had one that registered on the national radar quite like the one in 1995.
Virginia Tech has won two of its last three bowl games -- against Tennessee in the 2009 Chick-fil-A Bowl, and against Cincinnati in the 2009 Orange Bowl. Most programs are judged, though, on how they fared in their most recent game. The Hokies were throttled by Stanford 40-12 in the 2011 Orange Bowl, and are coming off a 38-10 loss to Clemson in the ACC championship game. It was the second time the Hokies had lost to the Tigers in 2011, and was one of their worst performances of the season.
"You never like turning on the TV and hearing people question your ability," Coale said. "To be honest, I've heard it and I've heard it quite a lot. It doesn't help when you lose like that. That's our fault. It's something that's in our control, in our hands. I still think we're a really good team. Just because we lost twice doesn't mean you're a bad team. I think we lost to a good team. I think we know it. It's very tough, I know, from the outside looking in; how are they any good? But I think there's a belief around here, that Virginia Tech has quality teams. Sure, we've lost our fair share of games, but hopefully we'll restore that a little bit here and play better in the Sugar Bowl. That's what we have to do -- bottom line, we didn't play good against Clemson."
Those within the program are convinced they're a better team than what they showed in the conference title game, and that alone has been enough to motivate them.
"We don't really take it as a slap in the face, we take it as a little bit of motivation, something else to push us," quarterback Logan Thomas said. "We're not exactly the most loved team in the nation, year in and year out. We're kind of used to the underdog bad-bowl game, stuff like that. We're kind of used to that, but we want to come out here and play the best game possible and try to change some of those opinions because some of them are unfair, but sometimes they're warranted. We have to go out and play the best game we can, and hopefully change a few minds."
If they win, the Hokies can party like it's 1995.
Heather Dinich is the ACC college football blogger for ESPN.com.