One of the biggest surprises this bowl season has been the success of the ACC. After the #ACCpocalypse earlier this year and constant jokes about the conference's poor play, it is good to see a 3-1 start. Obviously today's slate of games are extremely important (Clemson vs. USF, Miami vs. Notre Dame, Florida State vs. South Carolina) when it comes to conference respectability, but a tell-tale sign of whether or not the conference has truly shed its laughable status is how the Virginia Tech Hokies fare against the Stanford Cardinal.
So let's take a look at how the teams stack up...At first glance, I have to commend the fact that this matchup is happening in general. The teams are extremely well-matched, with good quarterbacks, good rushing attacks, and above-average defenses. And when you dive deeper, it's easy to see why I had this circled as one of the games I was most excited about among the big bowls.
For the Cardinal, it begins and ends with Andrew Luck. The consensus #1 pick in the 2011 NFL Draft (if he chooses to declare), watching just how much Luck has progressed since Wake played Stanford early last season has been remarkable. He is in complete control of Jim Harbaugh's offense, and is as composed as any quarterback in the nation. He threw for over 3,000 yards with a 28/7 TD/INT ratio, but also has the ability to escape pressure and get out and run (438 yards on 8.6 YPC). VT has their hands full in preparing for Luck, who absolutely torched the Demon Deacons earlier this season.
The Cardinal also has a very good running back in Stepfan Taylor, who drew the tall order of replacing Toby Gerhart, a second round draft pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. Taylor used Stanford's terrific offensive line to rush for 15 TDs and over 1,000 yards. He is also a threat out of the backfield as well, racking up 259 yards on 26 catches this year.
For as good as Stanford's offensive attack is, Virginia Tech's has been just as good, especially since the debacle against James Madison. In their 11 game winning streak, the Hokies have scored 30 or more points eight times, and 40 or more points six times. A big part of this has been due to the leadership of quarterback Tyrod Taylor. A dual-threat whose arm never seemed to catch up with his legs a year ago, Taylor has been a lot more balanced this season and his decision-making has improved dramatically. He completed 60% of his passes and threw just four interceptions, showing poise in the pocket and a better grasp of when to take off, when to take a sack and when to throw it away. The arm strength was never a question, but the touch on his deep balls has really surprised me this year.
But the Hokies can also do it on the ground. Wake saw just how good Stanford's Owen Marecic is earlier this season, but Virginia Tech's ability to let Tyrod do it himself and run with a variety of players in the backfield should help them tremendously. VT's most talented RB, Ryan Williams, is battling a hamstring problem, so that is something to watch, but he is upwards of a first round NFL Draft prospect, and has the ability to break one off at any time. With Darren Evans back there too, Stanford has their work cut out for them.
Both defenses are solid, but the playmaking abilities on the offensive side of the ball for both teams will be just too much. This is going to be a shootout. While there may be one or two opportunistic plays, this will be scoring, ball control and field position-based football. I don't anticipate very many mistakes by both quarterbacks or by either of the experienced head coaches. We all know "Beamer Ball," but honestly, Stanford is as smart a team as you'll see. While the ability is still there, it's hard to assume a blocked kick or a runback.
At the end of the day, this game is a coinflip for me. I expect both teams to score at least 28 points, and this game to come down to whichever offensive line does the best job. For me, I think Virginia Tech has more to prove than Stanford. The Hokies were possessed after that JMU loss, and the way in which they've been winning games has really impressed me. Frank Beamer does not have the greatest success in BCS games, but his squad has learned from their mistakes over the course of the year and have a lot to play for. That gives them an edge in an otherwise equally matched battle that should be one of the most entertaining games of the year.
So if I'm putting it all out there, I'll go:
Virginia Tech: 34