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August 15, 2007
Expansion hasn't helped make the Atlantic Coast Conference a factor in the national championship picture.
Miami was ranked third in the nation when it lost 14-10 to Georgia Tech on Nov. 19, 2005. Virginia Tech was fifth when it fell 32-29 to Florida State two weeks later in the inaugural ACC championship game. But those mark the only two times that an ACC team has been ranked in the top five as late as November since Miami and Virginia Tech joined the conference in 2004.
Even though the ACC has produced 18 first-round draft picks the last two years, the league's inability to produce a legitimate title contender has damaged the conference's reputation.
"I think maybe a national championship would change the perception of the conference," Virginia Tech offensive tackle Duane Brown said. "Hopefully we can do that for them."
Brown's team offers the ACC perhaps its best shot at a championship contender since the beginning of the expansion era. A title run by Virginia Tech also would provide college football with one of its most compelling storylines in recent memory.
Virginia Tech was the site of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history on April 16, when 32 people were shot to death before the gunman killed himself.
Every home football weekend at Lane Stadium this fall should turn into a cathartic experience for a campus that remains in mourning.
"They want to rally around you," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "You've probably got more people pulling for you and you've certainly got more people paying attention to Virginia Tech than ever before."
They'll be watching a team that has the look of a national title contender.
Virginia Tech never has won a national championship and has played for the title just once before, but the Hokies have good reason to believe this team can make history.
The Hokies boast so much talent on both sides of the ball that more than 80 percent of the voters in the ACC preseason media poll predicted Virginia Tech would win the conference title. Virginia Tech is ranked ninth in the preseason USA Today coaches' poll and has a league-high nine representatives on Rivals.com's preseason all-conference team.
Eight starters return from a defense that has allowed fewer yards per game than any team in the nation each of the last two seasons. All-America candidates Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi give Virginia Tech the best linebacking corps this side of Southern California. Cornerback Brandon Flowers ranked third in the nation in passes defended last season.
"We definitely want to be the No. 1 defense again for three years in a row," Virginia Tech defensive tackle Carlton Powell said.
Virginia Tech's offense also brings back eight starters and should get a boost from the return of Branden Ore, who was leading the ACC in rushing last year before suffering a high ankle sprain late in the season. Eddie Royal, Justin Harper and Josh Morgan give Virginia Tech perhaps the ACC's top collection of receivers.
The Hokies also remain hopeful that quarterback Sean Glennon can bounce back from a three-interception performance in a Chick-fil-A Bowl loss to Georgia. Glennon completed 56.9 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and 11 interceptions last year as a redshirt freshman.
"We have probably the top running back in the conference coming back," Brown said. "Our quarterback is much improved based on this spring. Our receiving corps is one of the tops in the nation. As long as the line comes together like we did this spring, I don't think there's a limit to what we can do."
That doesn't mean Virginia Tech fans should start buying plane tickets to New Orleans just yet.
Virginia Tech has an extremely difficult non-conference game Sept. 8 at Louisiana State, which is ranked second in the preseason coaches' poll. The Hokies also must travel to Clemson and Georgia Tech later in the season and face Florida State and Miami on back-to-back weeks in November.
The Florida State game could prove particularly troublesome. Florida State has gone 12-0 against Virginia Tech during Bobby Bowden's coaching tenure and hasn't lost to the Hokies since 1975.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing Virginia Tech this year isn't any single opponent. The Hokies instead must deal with all the attention that will surround them all season in the wake of last spring's tragedy.
Beamer knows that as well as anyone, which explains why he has emphasized focusing on the little things instead of getting caught up in all the potential distractions facing his team.
Even as he admits that his team will be playing under the national microscope all year long, Beamer has tried his best to shrug off the notion that the sympathy surrounding Virginia Tech could make the Hokies into "America's team."
"If we go out there and stink it up,'' Beamer said, "we won't even be Blacksburg's favorite team.''
Beamer's players believe they're ready for the challenge.
They have calmly answered all the questions of how this tragedy has affected their campus and their team. Now they just want to get on the field and get back to the relative normalcy of a football season.
"The added pressure is just going to help us win," Powell said.
The Hokies have the unyielding support of a campus eager for reason to cheer. They have the attention of a nation interested in seeing how Virginia Tech responds to this tragedy.
And if the Hokies somehow reach the title game, they'll certainly have the backing of a conference hungry for respect.
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